This week, numerous publications have released articles regarding the 19% fall in viewing of live Sky Sports Premier League Football – potentially a huge issue given the £5bn Sky has invested alongside BT to acquire the rights.
So, what’s going on?
There have been a number of different theories. The quality of the football, post-Euro 2016 apathy, even the issue of shared ownership of the Premier League rights between Sky and BT.
Rather than join in with the speculation, we at VCCP Media decided to delve a little deeper and look into the data and having done so, it would seem that a simple case of football snobbery could be at the root of the viewing decline.
Judging the perceived quality of a game is a little tricky, so in our analysis we used the previous season’s league table as a proxy for "quality", assigning each team the corresponding league ranking as their number.
For example, this season Leicester City is number one (because they finished first last season), Arsenal is two (finished second last year), Spurs is three (finished third last year) and so on. The same was done for the start of the 2015/16 league using the finishing positions of the 2014/15 season (Chelsea number one …), etc.
Each match then produces a "quality score" reflective of public perception and corresponding viewing demand of the game prior to kick off.
The nearer the score is to one the higher the quality of the match. Of course, this is not a perfect system. It does not account for rivalry or past game performance, however on the whole the figures tend to correlate. The higher the "quality score" of the game the higher the viewing.
When comparing August to September year on year, it quickly became apparent that a lower quality of fixture has been broadcast so far in 2016 compared to 2015. Using our methodology it’s 16.01% to be exact - a close match to the percentage drop in viewing.
Another factor to take into account is the scheduling of Friday night games and Sky Sports’ move from the 5pm Saturday evening game to the 12pm Saturday lunchtime game.
To account for any viewing that might be altered by day of the week trends, we separated games by broadcast position.
Fridays have very few matches and seem to have performed fairly equally, it’s Saturdays and Sundays that tend to be the days Sky is losing most viewers. Sunday viewing is down by 13%, which is understandable given the quality of fixtures has declined by 37%.
Saturdays should be the biggest concern for Sky since the new lunchtime kick off is clearly not performing. In our analysis the quality of fixture has increased 27% but viewing has fallen by exactly the same amount. Another point worth thinking about is Monday Night Football.
Gary Neville's celebrated return to punditry hasn't yet seen viewing increase and Sky will be hoping that this will return to last season's average.
Finally, we could try to compare games like-for-like. Arsenal vs. Liverpool is a fixture featured in both sets (2015 fixture was scheduled on a Monday night compared to 2016’s Sunday). 2015 averaged 1.202 million viewers, 2016 averaged 1.201million.
Overall, the analysis shows that the lower quality of game aired in 2016 along with the movement of the Saturday fixture are largely accountable for the decline in viewing. Overnights for the rather disappointing Liverpool vs. Manchester United fixture on the 17 October look encouraging with an average viewing of 1.6 million.
So, despite some of the quite wild speculation suggesting we may finally have hit the ceiling in terms of Premiership viewing, we would expect audience numbers to even out as the season progresses and as the higher quality matches start to appear in the schedule.
Lee Baring is head of broadcast at VCCP Media.