The Champions’ League – Part One

On Tuesday we will hear what BT has in store for its coverage of the Champions’ League and Europa League. It outbid Sky and ITV to win exclusive rights for the next three seasons.

The expectation is that they’ll announce Gary Lineker as co-presenting with Jake Humphries over Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with a £5 per month price-point for the package.

What that means for fans (and sponsors) is that there’ll be relatively little free European football on-air. At the time the bid was won, BT said that at least one fixture involving each British club in the competition will be available free-to-air on a specially set-up Freeview channel – BT Sport Showcase. This will include the final.

But whether they’ll offer the attractive games viewers want to see seems less clear. Man Utd v Zenit St Petersburg isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser, but would fulfill BT’s promise.

In the meantime Sky Sports has posted a blog that seems to say something along the lines of “We might have lost the Champions’ League, but nobody’s watching it any more and they only care about the Premier League, so we don’t really care.” Sour grapes anyone? The Guardian has more coverage here.

Is there too much Champions’ League football? Probably.

Are audiences down? Well the numbers say so.

Is this because English clubs haven’t done so well in the last couple of years? Er, I would think so.

Sky Sport’s audience at the weekend for the final might have been lower this year than last year, but it’s not clear to me that’s anything more than to do with the clubs competing. Personally I want to see Messi and co. I’m not convinced that Saturday night is the right time for the final, and wonder whether returning to Wednesday nights would see a stronger overall audience.

But I do think that UEFA is going to be the loser by selling exclusively to BT. Remember the OnDigital years? ITV had the Champions’ League exclusively then, and it wasn’t enough to save the platform. So yes, people do care more about the Premier League than the Champions’ League.

The football watching audience is divided into the following segments:

a. Free-to-air only. Match of the Day; England internationals on ITV; World Cups; Euros.

b. BT subscribers. Take BT Sport because they already have BT Broadband, so why wouldn’t they?

c. Sky Sports subscribers. Like the substantial Premier League offering.

d. Sky Sports + BT Sports. Pay for Sky Sports first of all, and then either get BT Sports free because of their broadband package, or pay because of the additional games it offers (other sports like rugby come into play here).

(e. BT Sports subscriber. Pay for BT Sport but aren’t BT Broadband subscribers. Probably only rugby or Moto GP fans, and not really football fans.)

We now need a couple of new segments:

f. Sky Sports + BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Football die hards paying some more money for a complete football offering. This is probably the key constituent for the success of BT Sports Europe.

g. BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Can anyone who doesn’t otherwise pay for football be persuaded to fork out £5 (or whatever) a month? This will be a small segment.

However the Champions’ League is vital for the top flight Premier League clubs. That’s why the big “four” are always fighting to be in it. Indeed, if they’re not then they’re not going to be able to attract the right players. Top players want to play in the Champions’ League.

It’ll be interesting to see how BT pitch their offering. They need to have the satellite capacity for Sky and Virgin subscribers to be able to watch as they can do now with BT Sports. And they need to persuade a lot of people to part with actual money to watch it.

I know that for me, this means my sports TV costs are going up. Sky has already announced price increases (the massive bids they made to retain Premier League rights ensured this), and now I’m facing £5 or more a month if I want to watch Arsenal in Europe (I do).

And then there’s the question of a monthly subscription fee when matches aren’t evenly spread out across the year. For example in the 2014/15 season, there was a single match in June – the final. July and August saw qualifiers – of interest to fans of the 4th place Premier League club, but few others. The group stage kicked off in September but rounds of the competition are not evenly distributed. There are no games at all in January. So how will subscribers deal with that? Do we all cancel mid-December and re-subscribe in mid-February? The Europa league has more games, and slightly more rounds to add into this mix.

In the meantime, we can look forward to a Media Guardian article this time next year explaining to us that the cumulative audience for the Champions’ League Final has fallen by x% (where x is a big number).

But let’s see what BT says tomorrow.

[Update: Here’s my follow-up piece.]

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