Manchester United and Liverpool are the only clubs who are likely to attract large television audiences to matches that have no impact on the title race or the battle for the Champions League spots, according to a new study into the domestic viewing figures for Premier League games.
The paper published last month by the Centre for Sports Business at the University of Liverpool Management School looked at 790 top-flight games which were screened between 2013 and 2019 and found that viewers are most excited by fixtures that affect the title, the quest for Champions League qualification and the relegation struggle. Researchers found little appetite for division-wide competitive balance in the data.
The findings of Armchair Fans: Modelling Audience Size For Televised Football Matches are of particular interest at a time when many within the sport are questioning whether the game is moving in the right direction. The Project Big Picture proposals put forward last month by the owners of Liverpool and United have been seen as a power grab by the elite clubs and the evidence of this report provides food for thought for those on all sides of the argument.
The study is the most comprehensive of its kind. It uses the most up-to-date performance analytics to assess the impact of player quality in attracting viewers and factors in outcome uncertainty for individual games, as well as the significance of the result to league positions. The data was adjusted for a host of other variables, including the time of year the match was played and if it was a weekend or midweek fixture. Derbies were taken into account and whether the match was shown on BT with its smaller subscriber base compared to Sky. The main surprise was that there appears to be little desire for a level playing field in the Premier League.
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“Everyone assumes people want competitive balance,” Ian McHale, one of the report’s authors, said. “In American sports the leagues attempt to keep teams equal by using the draft, revenue sharing and salary caps.
“It’s hard to find evidence of a desire for a similar situation here. The Premier League has developed so that there is intense competition at the top and the bottom. People talk about the division being three separate leagues but that has worked to the Premier League’s advantage.
“As long as there are four Champions League places, a top six or seven vying for those positions makes it interesting. It does not seem to matter if the teams below this are cut adrift.
“At the bottom you need at least four sides fighting relegation. After that, there seems to be little interest in parity. People don’t want Liverpool and United to be handicapped and become like Crystal Palace and West Ham.”
The academics calculated the changes in probability of a club achieving their aim – winning the title, booking a Champions League place or staying up – if they win a match compared to losing it. This was a major factor in attracting viewers. Where little is at stake apart from a mid-table position, the audience numbers tumble, except when United and Liverpool are involved.
Bournemouth operate in one of the smallest markets in the Premier League and have spent just five years in the top flight. They were selected as the reference club for the study on the basis that most other sides would attract bigger televised audiences. The statistics are stark and show the importance of what the report calls the “brand effect.”
“If either Liverpool or Manchester United were substituted for AFC Bournemouth in a televised match, the ‘brand effect’ alone would be predicted to raise audience size by about 75 per cent,” the authors say.
The dropoff afterwards is pronounced. Arsenal, the next highest rated team, only perform 43 per cent better than the south-coast minnows. Chelsea are in a similar rank to the Gunners but Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, who meet at White Hart Lane on Saturday, rate lower than their Big Six rivals.
This analysis is bad news for the Etihad. The report says: “Manchester City was the dominant club in our data period but its success was a new phenomenon and evidently it had not (yet?) accumulated the appeal of Liverpool and Manchester United, which both performed somewhat under-par in most of the seasons we cover.”
McHale puts it in more simple terms. “Liverpool and United were not clever during the time span of the study but still attracted enormous audiences,” he said. “Liverpool are likely to be doing even better now. They will measure higher in player quality, they have the brand factor and the match significance scores will have increased. City have nowhere near the same reach.”
The results offer signposts to those aiming to alter the direction of the game. “The model allows you to look at changing promotion and relegation and see what the potential impact would be on televised matches,” McHale said. “What would happen if you added an extra relegation place? If your ultimate ambition is to build audiences, you can simulate changes. Potentially you could look at the matches that would maximise viewing figures. That would allow you to approach advertisers with incentives.”
Television money increasingly drives the game. The authors note that in 2018-19, “revenue from broadcasting rights was almost exactly four times that from ‘match-day income’.”
The research deals with the domestic market but the same trends are likely to be occurring on the global scene, one of the key battlegrounds between the Big Six and the rest of the Premier League. John W Henry, Liverpool’s principal owner and architect of Project Big Picture, believes that the majority of top flight clubs have little worldwide appeal. The long-term strategy of the elite teams is to control their own broadcasting rights via pay-per-view but this could be as counterproductive as it is lucrative, and could create a scenario like La Liga where Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate.
“The Premier League has evolved into an efficient format,” McHale said. “While there are six or seven teams competing for the top four places it works well. But money matters in football. Clubs spending the most rise to the top. A couple of teams dominating and putting distance between themselves and those below them might affect the dynamic. Who knows what impact that could have.”
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