Covid Pandemic Creates New TV Sports Landscape

But Will the Fans Return to Stadiums?

Covid 19 has affected almost every aspect of our lives in 2021. One particularly sad aspect has been the way that sports fans have been unable to see live games in stadiums. Plenty of sport has been televised, of course, but it has been strange to see top stars performing in empty grounds.

Despite the lack of a real atmosphere, though, televised sport has proved very popular. Many sports, especially football, have reported a rise in TV audiences. With people living under various types of restrictions on their social lives across the UK and further afield, it should perhaps not be too surprising that sport has proved to be popular home entertainment.

Football remains the most high-profile sport in the UK, so it is not particularly shocking that the sport’s viewing figures were high once action resumed over the summer. With the whole of the UK in lockdown, any crumbs of entertainment were greedily feasted on by people stuck in their homes.

Viewing figures boomed during the summer, when lockdown was at its height. Aston Villa’s 0-0 draw with Sheffield United was the first game to be broadcast after football resumed in June. This game achieved a peak audience of 2.7 million viewers. That was 43% above the season’s average for a game on Sky.

Manchester City’s 3-0 victory over Arsenal in the same week had a peak audience of 3.4 million. That was a 94% increase on the 2019/20 season average for Sky Sports live TV games. Bournemouth v Crystal Palace, which was televised on the BBC not long after football resumed, attracted a peak audience of 3.9 million.

Other sports’ audience grows too

It’s not just football that reported an uptick in TV viewing figures. Rugby league’s Challenge Cup final, televised free-to-air by the BBC and drew the event’s biggest TV audience since 2012. It was also a 50% increase on last year’s final, with a peak audience of 1.6 million.

The whole of the Challenge Cup tournament, which was truncated due to Covid 19, attracted an aggregate TV audience of six million. For a sport like rugby league, which struggles to get its moments in the wider media spotlight, that is a significant figure.

But the football viewing figures for the new season of 2021/21 show a more nuanced state of affairs. While viewing figures have remained high for big games, Sky have reported that they are down for less prominent fixtures, something that suggests saturation point has been reached.

Average viewership for the 12 Premier League fixtures originally selected by Sky has been up 8%. According to the Daily Mail, however, the average viewing figures for all of the games shown during the first three rounds of the season is slightly down on normal levels. Of course, now that fans are not in the grounds, all games are being shown on television.

The drop in the overall average therefore suggests that fans are becoming more discerning. That shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise, though. Games that hadn’t originally been selected for broadcast were never going to be as popular with viewers as the really big clashes. So it is probably wise to view the 8% increase as more significant than the slight drop in overall viewing.

A more recent report suggests that Pay Per View figures for Sky’s Premier League offerings were not especially impressive. Each PPV game averaged around 39,000 viewers. That figure is slightly ahead of the Premier League’s target, however. The league’s hope was that TV viewing figures would match the average attendances of Premier League matches. The fact that it, broadly speaking, does is a sign that the fans who would normally go to games are the ones paying to view their clubs on TV.

That does not do much to encourage any clubs who might be thinking that individual broadcasting deals might be the way to go. Without the presence of the real giants of the game in the Premier League TV schedules, it would appear that audiences are pretty much limited fans of the clubs involved.

Of course, having no fans in the ground has been shown to shape the result of a game too, with referees less prone to being influenced by crowds. Much of the emotion has been drained from big matches, something that probably contributes to a more rational and reasonable relationship between players and match officials.

Players seem to treat the occasion as more of a job rather than a performance. There are more restrained celebrations when a goal or a try is scored. Sometimes, it is fair to say, the games look a little more like a routine day at the office rather than thrilling entertainment.

Will the crowds come back?

But perhaps this is the future of sport, certainly in the next couple of years. There must be a fear, perhaps justified, as to whether fans will actually come back to grounds when they eventually get the chance in the UK.

It is worth looking at other countries to see what the future might hold. New Zealand has been a place that has been successful in controlling the Covid 19 pandemic. Test Match rugby union has been played in front of packed crowds there, highlighting the appetite of sports fans to see some live action.

Bledisloe Cup Test Matches between New Zealand and Australia have attracted crowds that are almost at pre-Covid levels. There were 47,000 fans in the ground recently when The All Blacks faced the Wallabies in Auckland. That game followed on from a First Test where 30,000 fans were in attendance in the stadium in Wellington. Such crowded, passionate affairs seem a long way from happening in the Northern Hemisphere right now, with the Six Nations set to resume this weekend in front of empty stands.

So perhaps the future isn’t so bleak after all. But there is a sense that things will not return to anything like normal in the UK for a long time. That pessimism will surely permeate to sports fans, especially if the Covid 19 case numbers remain high.

If the UK fails to control the pandemic then it might potentially also have a knock on effect for international sports visitors to these islands. If quarantine restrictions remain in place then that is another factor to take into consideration. After all, who will want to pop over the Channel to watch a rugby union Test Match or a Champions League game if they need to spend 14 days in compulsory isolation as a result?

Playing sport behind closed doors in empty stadiums makes professional sport a bit of parody of itself really, but at the moment it’s all we’ve got. As streaming options and bespoke TV packages expand perhaps the future of sport is more TV-based. What that might mean for revenues and the leverage that governing bodies can wield in broadcasting negotiations remains to be seen.

But the ‘new normal’ might mean significant changes in how we watch sport for quite a long time to come. Welcome to era of stadiums as little more than Covid secure pitches, sterile and sanitised environments in several ways. It will be interesting to see if viewing figures for televised sport continue to stay at their current levels as the novelty of being able to watch an increased choice of fixtures wears off and saturation becomes a factor.

If this persists and becomes the long-term pattern for professional sport, one wonders where the passion will come from. And sport, without passion, is far from what we all know and love.

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