Broadcasters Opinion Premier League

Member Insights: Broadcasters need to sit on the sofa with the casual fans to understand what they want

April 19, 2023

In this Member Insights piece Richard Brinkman looks into why broadcasters and rights holders need to get in the heads of the casual fans.

April is a fantastic month to be a sports obsessive in the UK. Not only does the spring indicate the start of the cricket season (obviously good) and sunnier days ahead (obviously great) but it also means a golden overlapping period with the climax of the football and rugby seasons (good both because they are exciting and the marathon sagas are coming to an end!). 

Add into this mix totemic annual events like The Masters, Grand National, the Boat Race and the IPL. The viewer is really spoilt for choice in terms of what to give time and attention to. In addition, we also now have the choice to focus on the greater profile and coverage that standalone Women’s events such as the 6 Nations enjoy.

This embarrassment of riches and the challenge of giving all these great sporting events the time and attention that they deserve led to me recently being forcefully struck by how important it is for a sport to make itself as available and visible as possible. And then, preferably, in the most positive light. In a few moments of slightly alarming clarity I found myself experiencing and viewing sport not through a professional prism but rather as a bog-standard consumer with all the joy and frustration that comes with it.

This issue sounds obvious but, from what I am seeing, is seemingly often under-rated. The quality of decisions around this consideration needs serious thought if they are to garner the time, attention, eyeballs and credibility that will make or break their ongoing success and relevance. The established way of thinking about a mix of free-to-air, pay, stream and social media considerations seems very homogeneous and, in some cases, outdated.

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Very few sports can raise enough revenue from the echo-chamber of their relatively small number of “avid” fans to ensure their long-term survival at current levels of spend and future ambitions. Appealing to and winning over the attention of large numbers of casual or intermittent followers has been, and will remain, the key to being a major event or being relegated to a niche interest.

The supply side orientation of thinking about broadcast access (ie which mix of channels and routes to market will give me best £ vs eyeballs) needs challenging and, to my mind, some reconsideration. After all, this is a dynamic environment and the consumer consideration is not driven by channels but rather by want and ease. This has often been characterised as chicken and egg – easy access drives want but nobody wants to show on free-to-air or widely viewed channels content that is not wanted. However, over time and slowly, behaviours do change. And I would argue that frictionless access to prime content should now be the prime consideration.

A couple of weeks ago with the EPL entering its final “run in” (is it me or, like Christmas, does this seem to start earlier every year?!) I thought I would settle down with my son on a Wednesday evening to watch Man Utd v Brentford. I thought this might be a decent game and an interesting barometer as to where Utd were after their Anfield thrashing. Sky had selected to show the only other game happening that evening, West Ham v Newcastle, as their live game. Even with an intimate understanding and some historical involvement in how TV rights packages work I instantly turned (naively) to BT for the coverage. Obviously, none was forthcoming!

I was nonplussed, my son was not bothered. He simply went on his laptop and within 30 seconds had sourced the US live footage of the game. And whilst watching on a laptop is suboptimal this was made up for by the impressive US coverage. I was amazed by the high standard of commentary and punditry – so much so that I would not hesitate to source coverage again in this way if necessary.

This was my first “live” experience of piracy – it’s a real thing and serious precisely because it is so simple. With what we now know of the music industry and their initial stance regarding Napster, Spotify etc it seems an antiquated approach to deny UK broadcast of EPL matches because of scarcity supposedly driving up value or fears regarding attendance. Surely EPL clubs have more faith in the live experience than that? And if they don’t, they should look at what they are providing for their (high) paying customers. Equally, Covid let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to viewing any EPL match in the UK. 

Bearing this in mind I was delighted to read subsequently that the next round of UK TV packages are likely to offer 260 live games (of a total of 380), rather than the current 200. Even better that these matches are likely (why, by the way, are the PL so reluctant to comment on this once the reports come out? – it just looks lame!) to be spread across 4 parcels rather than the current 7. Both are sensible moves that will likely mean less friction and hassle for consumers. However, it looks likely that the Saturday 3pm “black-out” will remain despite it being, in effect, pointless when large-scale piracy is so straightforward.

In a similar vein of unnecessarily anachronistic broadcasting policies recent events at The Masters were laughable whilst simultaneously being completely infuriating! The delays due to storm interruptions subjected the Sky viewer to watching 3 folksy middle-aged men talk about golf around a plastic schmaltzy fireplace for 2 hours rather than showing what little action there actually was on the course. 

Apparently, we are only “allowed” to watch what are deemed to be “feature” groups. For as widely respected an event as The Masters, who are generally held up as an exemplar of doing the “right things”, this was as close to brand self-harm as you are ever likely to see. In an age of always on, instant access social media such an approach to broadcasting rights seems not just archaic but downright damaging. I am sure millions did as I did and found one of the many other sporting events or myriad other entertainment properties available to watch instead. If I can watch every match live at Wimbledon I fail to see why I cannot watch every group at Augusta?

In summary, I would encourage all rights holders (and, indeed, the broadcasters on the other side of the table) to think about their sport from the point-of-view of the casual fan – not just the noisy minority on Twitter or your owned social channels. You are in a highly competitive entertainment environment and creating unnecessary friction around access can only alienate and erode your brand equity. 

One final example – It may seem conceptually like a good idea to build value with the BBC by preventing ITV showing live replays of a 6 Nations game on their streamed ITVX hub until after the BBC’s Rugby Special programme on a Sunday evening. In reality, from the consumer perspective it is just irritating – thinking that creates friction and suits the broadcaster over the viewer. 

If someone wants to watch the entire match live, let them do it when they want to – if they want to watch highlights they would have selected that option instead anyway. Do not make life easy for pirates by building their market for them through artificially created barriers that serve no practical purpose for the broadcaster or your sport.

Broadcasters Opinion Premier League