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Is football becoming less popular? | Covid 19, European Super League & Football Fans

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Real Madrid President Florentino Perez says football is on the decline, but how true is that statement?

by Craig Humpage
Football Writer, Sporticos
Published on Thursday 22 April 2021

When asked why he spearheaded an attempt by 12 of the biggest clubs in Europe to breakaway and form a new Super League, driving force behind the project Florentino Perez said that an estimated 40% of people between 16 and 24 were no longer interested and that popularity was declining, but how true is that? It raises several questions. How has football watching changed during the coronavirus pandemic? Was the Super League really an attempt to "save football" or just more bad business? How much do fans really matter, and how bad an impact has their absence from stadiums been during the past year and change? Do the big boys want fans anymore or simply viewers? What's the situation like in other countries?

Are we watching more or less football during coronavirus pandemic?

At the start of this season, a report from one national newspaper in the UK, the Daily Mail, found that Sky Sports' English Premier League viewing figures were on the decline. The findings indicated that average per match viewership across the first three rounds of Premier League fixtures upon its return were slightly down on normal levels. However, the broadcaster revealed that the audiences for the 12 games they initially wanted to schedule - including the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United - were up 8% compared to those matches when they were shown last season. This worried the broadcasters as it showed that big clubs and big games were still drawing big audiences but that those overall viewing figures were being watered down by a lack of interest in "lesser" fixtures. This, along with similar trends on the continent, made up a huge part of Real Madrid President Florentino Perez's defence of the Super League project and his motivation for pushing the competition.

Many experts also attributed this overall decline seen in the figures to general oversaturation after the EPL caved to public pressure and agreed to the broadcast of every game i.e. blanket coverage. They teamed up with Sky Sports, BT Sport, Amazon and the BBC to ensure that every match would be televised in one or another of their respective services. This trend has continued with every Premier League match continuing to be shown on TV for the rest of the season. This is why you'll never see two EPL games scheduled at the same time. What seemed like every football fans dream may have caused a dip in interest. As the old pro wrestling adage goes, "who wants to see the world champion every weekend?". With the constant coverage of top flight English football resembling that old Mitchell and Webb Look "football" sketch, some viewers might see it as overkill and end up watching less than they did before the pandemic, big clubs and small clubs included.

So, viewing figures have been suspect. At the start of the season the initial excitement may have kept them on a somewhat even keel but the figures represent a general dip in interest which could be attributed to overkill. One of Perez's unproven claims was that fans were struggling to sit through a full 90 minutes. While the Match of the Day highlights programme on the BBC remains a popular destination for fans wishing to catch up on all the games of the weekend, it's hard to believe that football supporters have become less interested in watching full games and that point needs data to be believed. Other metrics like social media interest, illegal live stream numbers and YouTube football viewers seem to show that football fans haven't gone anywhere. They may just be changing how they consume sport.

Illegal streams on the rise in the United Kingdom

As the pandemic hit and fans were barred from stadiums, it became apparent that millions more people in England and the rest of the UK were going to flock to the internet to find ways to watch their club. Official channels were introduced or improved including live streams from the top TV providers, and sources like the EFL's iFollow. Nonetheless, the prices involved for many seemed too much to stump up and illegal live streams have continued to be popular among some fans. It's always been there lurking in the background but it seems to be getting even bigger.

This is why FACT, leaders in intellectual property protection, and the City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU), have issued a joint warning. In their statement, they said: "We encourage everyone to watch only via official providers as this doesn’t only guarantee that you’re not breaking the law but also guarantees that you’re not putting yourself and your family at risk of malware and inappropriate content. FACT is continuing to monitor content sources and works with members and industry to tackle illegal activity."

People who use illegal services to stream matches from the Premier League, Championship and elsewhere have been threatened with hefty fines and even potential prison sentences. Yet, Kodi boxes and dodgy websites are still popular and receive millions of viewers every weekend. Some attribute this to the high cost of legal live stream channels or watching on TV. Taking this into account, along with the marginal decline in TV viewership - which itself is debatable - it seems that people are just as keen to watch football during the pandemic as they used to be, if not more so.

Premier League Perspectives from the American market

Ratings from US markets from last month juxtaposed with those of the previous year show a huge dip in interest. One particular case study highlights this issue. The derby between Manchester United and Manchester City which was played on March 8, 2020, just before the pandemic brought football to a startling halt, drew in 1,338,000 viewers. This year on March 7, 2021, the same matchup attracted 762,000 viewers on NBCSN. That's an almost 50% decline. Many experts attribute this decline in viewership to the different networks, the former being broadcast on traditional TV and the other a cable provider. However, could such a stark decrease be explained simply by a change in location? Perhaps, or perhaps the lack of fans in stadiums which has completely gutted the atmosphere of games may have killed the momentum the league had in a somewhat new market.

Travis Yoesting at explains that NBC will be closing NBCSN at the end of this year. The channel has been the home of Premier League coverage since 2013, and now it is likely that the EPL will find its new home on a platform like Peacock, a pay stream platform like ESPN+. Fans are already feeling the heat from paying for so many sports TV subs, other streaming packages and it's all getting a bit much. In one of the countries where the Premier League was just finding its feet, will it now be relegated to paid streams, basically side-lining the casual fan who may have become hooked over the coming years? Maybe. Could we see similar trends on the horizon on the global market as football moves towards a Netflix-style model?

To what extent has this decline in viewership and subsequent move to streaming been caused by the pandemic? It's impossible to know for sure but the popularity of the sport and in particular the Premier League was growing in the states over the previous decade - especially with clubs like City and Liverpool - and now it seems to have come to a rather abrupt halt and supporters across the pond are concerned about the future of football broadcasting there. They worry they will need to shell out for even more subscriptions to live stream platforms to watch the games. Would that have been the case without the coronavirus or was it always heading in that direction? It seemed before that the upward momentum was heading towards more easily accessible TV coverage than less but now that trend seems to be going in the wrong direction.

Are fans really losing interest?

While Florentino Perez seems troubled by the idea of the "more modest clubs" (as he put it) making the money while the elite falter, many fans across the world will welcome such an evening of the playing field. It is not our fault that even with the major financial backing of the Kingdom of Spain, Real Madrid have managed to win just five titles in eighteen years. Perhaps their economic turmoil may be down to decisions like spending $150 million on Eden Hazard at 29 years of age, knowing one bad injury could mean his days are numbered. He talks about how the smaller teams are making money while the rich are losing it. One suggestion could be to not spend hundreds of millions of euros on players who won't deliver. Cristiano Ronaldo cost Juventus $130 million and they are fourth and barely able to get out of a Champions League group. Barcelona are estimated to be $1 billion in debt. They may have thought twice before buying Coutinho from Liverpool or the host of other big money flops they've ploughed money into. The creators of the Super League say no, and they believe the solution is to push even further in the direction of appeasing global audiences.

Looking at the data, it seems that the economic disaster taking place at the top of football has nothing to do with waning interest, and everything to do with business mismanagement at an executive level. Fans are just as interested in football as they ever were. Perez's ridiculous comments about a lack of interest among 18-24 year olds barely even require further analysis. With the Real President seemingly reluctant to show his working, we can only deduce that he did a quick survey monkey involving his 20 rich nephews about whether they like watching Elche or Real Valladolid and the results are in. Genuine statistics seem to show that while interest in the big clubs is of course higher than the smaller ones, as it always will be, people are still watching the game on TV in their billions, they are still buying the latest FIFA game every year, they are risking punishment to illegally stream matches.

If Leicester City qualify for the Champions League three years in a row, wisely invest their revenues and focus on performance on the pitch, they will a garner a bigger fan base and become a "big team" just like AC Milan used to be. Football used to work in cycles and it used to be about sporting merit, but Perez, Agnelli and the other elites don't like that model. They firmly believe they should be the only ones reaping the benefits of huge TV broadcast deals and sponsorships which they can invest poorly in overpriced "big name" players while floundering in terms of actual sport. These executives claim to be free market capitalists yet they loathe competition. They see themselves as self-appointed Gods who should rightly banish the "smaller" teams from the equation, and what's their latest excuse? His big team and others like it are losing money because nobody is interested in football anymore. Why? Because Elche are allowed to play Real Madrid in La Liga, Sheffield United are allowed to play Manchester United in the Premier League and Sporting Lisbon are allowed to play Barcelona in the Champions League tournament. Show me the data and I might believe you, but I am very sceptical about the idea that the classic football fan has gone off the world's most famous sport and the David versus Goliath encounters it often creates.

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