Viewing figures for Sky’s Premier League coverage slumped to their lowest point in seven years last season, casting doubt on the longevity of the English top flight’s lucrative broadcast agreements.
The figures come from the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (Barb), which also revealed a 6% decline in total viewing figures during the same period.
Sky has paid £4.2bn to show 126 live Premier League fixtures every year for the three seasons spanning 2016/17-2018/19 at a cost of around £10m per game.
BT, which paid £960m for its share of the rights to show 42 games per season, also failed to see its investment pay off having recorded a more modest decline of 2% in average viewing figures during the season in which Chelsea won the title.
Several factors out with broadcasters’ control will have impacted on the viewing figures including Leicester City’s enthralling triumph during the previous season (2015-16), the Rio Olympics and an absence of bigger teams like Newcastle and Aston Villa.
Still, the underwhelming figures point to signs of a wider trend in how audiences are consuming live sport with younger audiences increasingly favouring highlights on Snapchat over viewing a full game on TV.
Other research has suggested that the decline in viewing figures for live sport goes beyond just a shift in viewing habits and is the result of cheaper online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime courting audiences’ attention.
Sky has pointed to the development of its digital platforms as a reason for the decline in TV audiences. The broadcaster said viewing across its own streaming services — Sky Go and Now TV, where non-Sky customers can buy day passes for £6.99 — were up 31% in the last year.
A spokesman for Sky said: “As we anticipated, the way customers engage with live sport is changing — with strong growth in newer, digital-first platforms — though linear viewing remains important for those big moments that matter.”
A spokesperson for BT Sport issued a statement saying: “ Whilst BARB viewing figures are a useful barometer they don’t give the whole picture and are not our measure of success. Viewing habits are changing, with many of our customers consuming our content through digital platforms including the BT Sport App, YouTube and most recently in Virtual Reality (VR)."
Collectively Sky and BT paid £5.14bn for the last round of live rights which in turn handed the Premier League the title of the most lucrative football league in the world where teams like Sunderland, who finished bottom of the league, still receive around £72m. In comparison, Real Madrid are believed to have earned around £79m for winning the 2016/17 Champions League, according to Uefa's financial breakdown of the competition.
Premier League clubs remain focused in trying to further inflate the value of the rights deals with broadcasters. At a recent annual shareholders meeting, club's discussed the possibility of making more than 200 games a season available for bidding.
The fragmentation of the audiences viewing figures and signs of a general decline are likely to add downward pressure on rights values and could force more clubs to look to strengthen their own commercial revenue streams through moves like the recently introduced sleeve sponsorship space.