Has the Sports Broadcasting Bubble Burst?

Rob Palmer

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Wembley Stadium - James Sandham - Flikr Commons
Wembley Stadium – James Sandham – Flikr Commons

Sports broadcasters are the cornerstone of the entertainments industry attempts to lure us to part with our cash since the 1980’s. However, in 2016 viewership is on the decline. Has the sports bubble finally burst?

Growing up sports was always central to weekends with my family. Big games in the Premier League would be a family event. Everything would be organised to make sure we were all able to gather around the TV in time for kick off on a Saturday afternoon. We would spend a couple of hours cheering, giving out and generally telling each other we had made some poor life choices until the referee blew the full-time whistle.

My Sundays were planned around Formula One races. Family talk surrounded our favourite drivers and how much we hated everyone else. We would talk about trying to get to a race, but then realise it’s too expensive. Then throw the kettle on to make a cup of tea just in time for lights out.

Today, that dynamic seems to have changed globally. If we look closer to home, Sky Sports have announced Premier League viewing figures have dropped by a staggering 19% in England. This is terrible news for a broadcasting platform that has just spent €6.9 billion to secure a three-year deal to broadcast most of the games.

Sports further from our Irish shores are faring no better. Formula One has lost one-third of its viewers since 2008. American Football (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), American Basketball (NBA) and the Olympics have also all suffered viewership slumps in 2016 compared to 2015; 2012 in the case of the Olympics.

So, what’s gone wrong? If you listen to the noise that media executives are making, not much. Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of global research and analytics speaking, has said in Sports Business Daily: “All these sports go through cycles. It’s impossible to suggest that there’s anything going wrong here, particularly because we are in an odd year in terms of the protracted presidential race, which has captured the attention of Americans going back a year now. Plus, it’s an Olympic year, which clearly had an impact during the summer”.

However, many analysts do not agree with Mr Bulgrin’s assessment. Streaming platforms are credited with luring viewers away from the “classic” method of watching sports on TV. Lee Berke of LHB sports says: “I think we’ve reached a tipping point, the TV industry has moved from being mature with broadcast and cable outlets to a start-up with all these streaming options”.

Sports broadcasting is not in decline, despite the viewership figures. The majority of experts – and market trends – show that sport is still the hottest property on TV. This is highlighted by the massive deal mentioned earlier involving Sky and the Premier League. There is also increased revenue being brought in via broadcasting deals for other sports such as UFC and NFL.

Broadcasters now face a battle of  keeping their product profitable. The internet has been providing potential punters with illegal access to their broadcasts for several years now. This year the Premier League brokered a deal with Sky and Twitter to enable goals to be uploaded to the platform. They follow the lead of the highly successful model Major League Soccer has pioneered with uploading snippets of games to Twitter and full highlights packages of every game to YouTube. Other American Sports have started hosting games on their own online networks with a fee to stream the game or race live.

Networks are willing to reach out and adapt to the change in how people want to watch their product. However, it remains to be seen if they can adapt quickly enough to the vastly changing technological landscape. Live sport is not on the decline; in fact, it’s more profitable than ever.

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Rob Palmer