The days when 30 million people would gather around their TV sets to watch a football World Cup or FA Cup final are long gone, as the satellite and cable eras saw many sports move to pay-TV, while a host of other attractions now also compete for precious viewing time.
In this atomised leisure landscape, sports viewing figures are regularly trumpeted as being in either a robust state, or, conversely, losing those precious armchair “bums on seats”.
However, as with viewing itself, the picture is no longer black and white, with a number of different factors, from the sporting calendar, to competing broadcast events, to audience age and demographics, all affecting watching numbers.
Add to that new digital methods of viewing, and the sports’ viewing picture is a shifting one.
‘Variables at play’
The big headlines this autumn were that Sky’s TV viewing figures for Premier League football had apparently fallen by 19%, while over in the US fewer people were watching NFL American Football than previously.
But Robin Jellis, editor of respected industry journal TV Sports Markets, says: “I think there have been a number of factors which have affected those audiences at the start of the Premier League season.
“It kicked off at the same time as the Olympic Games and the Ryder Cup. And there is also the factor that two of the biggest supported clubs, Newcastle and Aston Villa, were relegated last year.”
Mr Jellis says that means it is a tricky task to draw any conclusions as regards long-term viewing trends for football.
And Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore has said “you cannot draw any meaningful conclusions from the year-on-year viewing figure comparisons” adding “there are far too many variables at play such as the timing, context and nature of the matches”.
‘Shift and flux’
Mr Jellis says technological factors have meant a change in consumption factors for televised sport, which might also obscure actual viewing figures.
“In terms of technological trends, there is definitely a move away from linear television, that is watching sport on TV – rather than on a phone, computer, tablet. There is definitely a shift away from that traditional mode.
“That idea of making an appointment to sit down and turn on the TV is changing. And it is much more difficult to monitor these new audiences.”
The Premier League’s Mr Scudamore agrees that “some habits are changing”, with their broadcast partners looking to meet this new audience demand via things like online TV service Sky Go and the BT Sport app.
Max Barnett, global head of digital at Nielsen Sports, which provides analytics for the sports industry, agrees change is occurring.
“Audiences will always shift and flux, but over the last few years there has been a steady move of viewers taking to digital as a leading source of sports content.
“Today in the UK for example, 45.9% of people use social media regularly as an information source compared to 39.7% in 2014.
“Whilst this is true across sports in general, football offers a great example of where audiences are moving.”
He also says that as well as digital, understanding the importance and size of the “non-captured TV audience” (people watching sport out of home in pubs and bars for example) is vital as this is not accounted for in linear TV calculations.
Of course, the reason why people might be watching in pubs is because they do not have satellite television at home to watch pay-TV sport.
Mr Jellis says that while the removal of many sports in the UK from free-to-air over the years – including British Open golf, Test cricket, and Formula 1 racing – has played a part in affecting audiences, it is “a bit of a red herring – to blame it is an easy answer”.
He adds: “When the Open golf championship went from the BBC to Sky there was a great deal of comment, and a bit of a backlash. But 90% of people who watched on the BBC probably had a subscription to Sky already.
“Also if you look at cricket, there may seem to have been a decline in people playing since the 2005 Ashes series was shown on Channel 4, the last time they were on terrestrial TV.
“But looking at the positive rather than the negative from that, Sky has invested a huge amount of money in cricket.
“People who follow a sport will still watch whether it is on free-to-air or pay-TV, but the casual viewer will no longer watch.”
But what if those potential casual viewers are youngsters, does it deprive them of their first taste of televised sport?
Mr Jellis admits taking sport off free-to-air means unless households have Sky, BT or suchlike, then sport will be “less ingrained in young people’s lives”.
But he says that they might not necessarily be interested in sport on TV anyway, even on free-to-air.
“They increasingly prefer to play sport games on Xboxes, consoles, Playstations,” he says.
“Or if there is a big sporting event they may rather follow it on social media. Young people would often rather take part in these activities, than watch a game live on TV.”
Francois Gendrot, international research manager at Paris-based Eurodata TV Worldwide/Mediametrie, says that when looking at the wider picture of big marquee sports events across Europe he does not believe sports viewing on TV is declining.
“Of course there are more and more pay-TV channels, and rights are transferring there, such as with BT and the Champions League in the UK, for example,” he says.
“This change has of course had some impact, as watching figures can sometimes be smaller on pay-TV. But when it comes to the big events, such as World Cups, Olympic Games, or the Euros, then the evidence is very positive.”
The firm says that its analysis of the recent 2015-2016 sporting season shows that sports “remain a stronghold for live TV consumption”.
“Even in the age of mobile devices, major sports events are the only shows capable of gathering such large audiences and reaching out to specific targets at the same time, such as millennials.”
Meanwhile, they say new types of interesting deals are taking place, such as that between Twitter and the NFL in the US, with the media firm streaming Thursday night gridiron games.
So, although new challenges definitely exist for televised sport, in what is an increasingly changing landscape, the viewing picture is one of evolution and change rather than audiences necessarily reaching for the off button.
Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37987079