Watching European Football Finals on TV

Well the first results are in. BT is very pleased that BT Sport got a record audience on Wednesday night for the Europa League Final – the first big final of their three year exclusive contract for UEFA Champions’ League and Europa League coverage.

According to Media Guardian, it drew an average of 1.6m viewers on BT Sport Europe, and a further 606,000 viewers on BT Sport Showcase, giving a combined audience of 2.2m.

If you’d wanted to watch the game on Wednesday, then Virgin and Sky viewers could tune to BT Sport Europe which was unencrypted for the fixture meaning all could watch. If you were a Freeview viewer, then you could navigate your way to channel 59 where BT Sport Showcase mostly acts as a “barker” channel encouraging you to subscribe, but on Wednesday was showing the game.

When BT won the rights to these European games in 2013, it promised UEFA that each British team in the competitions would appear at least once free to air. And in the first season of the deal, they did all appear precisely once. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to know when games are free to air, and although BT did do some marketing, you might have had to search.

Frankly I don’t believe the average viewer even knows BT Showcase exists, let alone that you could watch some football on the channel. And yes, I know BT did buy some advertising to promote the final including, for example, the back page of Metro on Wednesday.

When it came to the final, BT announced a deal that sees the games stream on YouTube too. Sensible, and it should be added that YouTube viewing is not included in that 2.2m. Be wary of any numbers you see banded around, as they’re unlikely to be directly comparable to the average audience figures that BARB publish. Nonetheless, YouTube does at least mean the game was accessible if you knew where to look, even if a mobile device is not the best way to watch football.

But you have to think that a match featuring a club the size of Liverpool would have achieved much greater viewing figures overall had it been free-to-air.

I dug into some old fixtures and came up with this list of performances over the last five Europea League finals.

DateTeamsResultChannelAudience (m)
18 May 2016Sevilla v Liverpool3-1BT Sport Europe/BT Showcase2.20
27 May 2015Sevilla v Dnipro3-2ITV40.80
14 May 2014Sevilla v Benfica0-0 (4-2 pens)ITV41.21
14 May 2013Chelsea v Benfica2-1ITV15.66
9 May 2012Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao3-0C51.46

Put into that context and 2.20m is pretty low. Yes – other games have had lower audiences, but then they weren’t exactly “must watch” for UK viewers.

When Chelsea was in the final in 2013 it was watched by 5.66m. Liverpool would probably have done better than that on ITV.

For what it’s worth, 885,000 people watched the highlights on ITV at 10.45 – around 1.5x the number who watched on BT Sport Showcase. How many didn’t even realise they could watch live?

There have been rumours that UEFA is unhappy with BT’s performance with their free-to-air games. It may be too late for this contract, but these low viewerships do affect the revenue UEFA brings in in sponsorship. But then BT is paying through the nose for exclusivity.

It should be said that these are overnights for this year, and might rise fractionally once delayed viewing is added – although it’d be a particular type of masochistic Liverpool fan who wanted to watch the game later. And I really have no idea how popular YouTube was.

The Champions’ League Final will be interesting to cast an eye over in a week or so. With no British club in it, the interest will be lower. But just how low will it be?

If I was BT I would have sub-licenced these games to ITV or C5. I’m sure some kind of a deal could have been done where the game was presented to audiences at “BT Sport on ITV” or some such thing. (ESPN uses this model with its sister network ABC in the US – although they’re obviously both Disney companies). ITV would generate much bigger ad revenues which could potentially be shared, UEFA is kept happy, and BT gets a free showcase to promote its ongoing coverage of the full competition next season.

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