BT Sport can be satisfied with their impact on football broadcasting. Their English coverage can be hit and miss, but their European work has been exceptional. They treat overseas games with respect, as matches worthy of comment in their own right and without always searching for tiresome connections to the English game. They cover the Champions League with depth and passion and, while I must declare an interest in that I’m very fond of the cast, I have been crying out for something like the European Football Show for years. But I do worry this week that BT Sport have bitten off more than anyone wants to pay for.
You’ve probably seen the figures. They’ve paid £1.18bn for three years of Champions League football, a 32% price rise on an already expensive deal that, oddly enough, neither ITV nor Sky showed much enthusiasm for matching.
But of all the staggering numbers in this story, the ones that should cause most concern came from John Petter, the chief executive of BT’s own consumer division, who is understandably proud of his organisation’s vibrant social media presence, through which BT plans to siphon clips and highlights.
“The viewing figures we see on social media are really, really massive,” he said. “One third of 15 and 16-year-olds don’t watch linear TV at all.”
That’s absolutely staggering. A third of 15 and 16 year olds don’t watch “linear” TV? I’m no captain of industry, but I’m fairly sure that it’s only okay to pay wildly over the odds for an exclusive chunk of stuff if the market for it is about to grow dramatically. Men and women clutched their chests in horror when Sky paid £304m for a five-year slice of Premier League in 1992, but football had plenty of room to grow back then because hardly anyone would ever admit to liking it in polite company. It wasn’t quite a pariah sport, but it wasn’t far off. Attendances had slumped and TV coverage was minimal. It’s very different now, of course. Indeed, you would think that everyone in the UK who could possibly be attracted to the sport has been wooed, and subsequently won or lost, already. Except for the youngsters…
That’s the demographic for which all television advertisers yearn. The next wave. The customers whose buying habits are only just beginning to solidify. Grab them now and you might keep them forever. But where are they? They’re watching YouTube videos, or sharing unattributed clips on Facebook, or just merrily blasting pictures of their bits at each other through Snapchat. They’ve gone. They’ve actually gone. BT are casting their expensive new rod into the lake and 33% of the fish are sat safely at the bottom happily watching chicken shop reviews on their phones.
Even if they do watch Champions League clips on social media, what does that achieve? As the ghosts of newspaper editors from 1995 to present day will whisper to you in the night, giving your product away for free is rarely a sustainable business model.
But those kids are not the only ones to have moved on. As the level of televised live football has moved from ‘saturation’ to ‘biblical flood’ over the last ten years, you do wonder how many people of any age are watching. Everyone watches their own team, we can take that as read. We can also safely assume that most football fans watch big games like title deciders, high level derbies and cup finals.
But what about the rest? There’s just so much of it. How many people really watch the Monday night game, two Champions League matches on Tuesday and Wednesday, a Europa League clash on Thursday and the Bundesliga on Friday? You might do because you’re a fanatic, reading stories about football TV coverage when you’re supposed to be working. I do because it’s my job. And even then I’ll tape some of it and watch it the next day because I value my marriage. But what about…you know…normal people? Every day, on countless channels, across multiple time-slots there’s wave after wave after wave of football. Who is watching it all? Is it just us?
More pertinently, *how* are people watching? The phenomenon of second-screening (half-watching a game, half-watching something else like Twitter or grainy pictures of other people’s bits on Snapchat) is widespread and indicates that many people aren’t really concentrating anyway. They’re taking it in like people take in conversations about mortgages with frazzled people who have just bought houses. You nod every now and then, but you don’t really care and you won’t remember a thing in an hour’s time. And if you’re not focused on the main event, then are you really going to focus on the adverts? And if you’re not focusing on the adverts, what’s the point of paying gazillions of pounds on advertising?
Even for the biggest games, audiences aren’t what you might think. The much-hyped ‘Red Monday’ match between Liverpool and Manchester United this season only snared 2.8m viewers and that was Sky’s biggest audience in three years. Most games get nowhere near that.
BT’s consumer man has identified a seismic trend away from traditional media consumption and yet BT has just bet heavily on traditional media consumption paying dividends. And the question is not simply whether or not we’re watching Champions League football anymore. It’s whether or not we’re actually watching anywhere near as much football as people think, and whether or not we’re concentrating.
Sooner or later, someone is going to find that they’ve overstretched themselves. Someone is going to be the first to discover that the interests and viewing habits of the British people are evolving. That they have evolved. Someone is going to lose a lot of money betting that we’ll never get bored of football.