Inside Sky Sports' biggest overhaul since Murdoch's £304m deal

Former Soccer Saturday presenter Jeff Stelling - Sky Sports in unprecedented flux in their battle to seduce Gen Z
Jeff Stelling left Soccer Saturday after more than two decades as the show's presenter - Getty Images/Tom Jenkins

Another week at Sky Sports and the leaving parties show no sign of abating. “Some of the crowd are on the pitch, they think it’s all over. It is now. Full time for me,” declared John Fendley, aka Fenners, the producer and co-host with Jimmy Bullard on Soccer AM, which was broadcast for the final time last month.

It was rather more upbeat than the multiple postings of outrage which were retweeted and liked by Jaydee Dyer after it emerged a few days earlier that he is not among the eight football reporters who will remain in their roles next season.

We still await the white smoke of news over the future of Geoff Shreeves, the lead pitchside reporter and an ever-present at Sky Sports for 31 years, after he was made to reapply for his job and then received a significantly reduced offer to continue next season.

All this comes after the departures already this summer of three titans - Jeff Stelling, Martin Tyler and Graeme Souness - and adds up to Sky Sports’ biggest revolution since Rupert Murdoch bid £304 million in 1992 for exclusive live Premier League action and changed global sport forever.

“I’ve never known a time quite like it - and we are all still expecting plenty more change,” said one long-term Sky insider. Not since Richard Keys and Andy Gray left the building in 2011 has Sky Sports been shrouded in such intrigue.

Are they simply cutting costs? Cleverly hoarding for the next Premier League auction? Overly impressed by mobile phones and Gen Z when it is largely still the remote control-owning parents footing the monthly bill? Or is this simply necessary and far-sighted evolution by a company who, thus far at least, have been remarkably adept at staying ahead of the competition. It depends who you speak to.

One thing, though, is certain. Whereas tackling Keys and Gray represented a very precise surgical manoeuvre in response to a particular problem, the changes speak to something fundamental about the sports media landscape and how Sky intend to position themselves.

Different decisions over recent months have happened for very different reasons. Tyler is 77 and although his contract is not being renewed and he does not intend to retire, he has departed on good terms at a time in life when many commentators have already hung up the microphone. A big on-air send off was planned but he missed the final few weeks of the season due to an illness that had affected his voice.

Despite the social media storm over his “man’s game” remark last August, Souness also departed on friendly terms after it was mutually agreed not to extend his rolling one-year contract. Stelling had been seriously considering his future at Sky for several years before deciding to make this his last season. His own personal upset at the Soccer Saturday departures of close friends Charlie Nicholas, Matt Le Tissier and Phil Thompson in 2020 was no secret and he is now on a period of gardening leave and in talks both with BBC Five Live Radio and Amazon.

Graeme Souness as part of Sky Sports' panel of pundits - Sky Sports in unprecedented flux in their battle to seduce Gen Z
Graeme Souness will not be part of Sky's Premier League coverage next season - PA/Peter Byrne

Soccer Saturday will continue next season with a new host and a revamped studio set, but the wider direction of travel has been a study cull of football programming outside the often extended live coverage. Goals on Sunday, Sunday Supplement and The Debate all came off air in recent years, with Sky focused on expanding a younger digital audience with material that can be easily clipped up and shared on social media.

A team of 13 football reporters is being reduced by five this summer, with new pay bandings and different duties, alongside four new ‘content creator’ roles. Some of the previous 13 reporters did not reapply for these jobs and while Bianca Westwood and Lynsey Hooper are not understood to be among those on the initial new list of reporters, there are ongoing discussions about possible future roles.

Sky Sports were historically slow to appoint women into touchline reporting or punditry positions and with such uncertainty over Westwood and Hooper - but Peter Drury already announced as Tyler’s successor - industry insiders and viewers are watching closely to see what changes are finalised. “People just want to be treated fairly,” said one source.

A more diverse on-screen panel emerged from the Soccer Saturday overhaul in 2020 and managing director Jonathan Licht has been public in his desire for more women in senior positions.

“What we are about is having the right culture and an inclusive culture,” he told The Game Changers podcast last year. “We have spent a lot of time over the last couple of years looking at the pipeline, looking at where we recruit, looking at how we recruit, the language when we are recruiting, the networks we are using. Things that people will rightly say we should have been doing 20, 30 years ago. But we are doing it and we are seeing the benefit. We are bringing more people into Sky Sports that represent our audience better than we have traditionally done.”

From 30 million followers or subscribers across their various social media channels in 2017, Sky Sports have more than tripled that audience.

Twitter and Instagram have both risen substantially but the most striking advances are on YouTube and TikTok. The Women’s Super League TikTok channel alone has risen to 143,000 followers since its launch only nine months ago. In 2016, Sky Sports had just three YouTube channels - Soccer AM, Sky Sports and Sky Sports Football - which amassed 76 million views over the course of the year.

They now have 14 YouTube channels, combining to over 1.5 billion views in the last year. The Overlap, which stars Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Roy Keane, has attracted huge numbers of new viewers but is freely available on YouTube.

Sky Sports in unprecedented flux in their battle to seduce Gen Z
The Overlap has been a success for Sky Sports on their YouTube channel - Sportsfile/David Fitzgerald

The pertinent business question, then, is surely whether this all translates to enhanced income and quality compared with the preferences of what might be a smaller core of traditional television subscribers who are often paying three-figure sums per month.

“Monday Night Football still has huge gravitas but that’s been lost elsewhere in a lot of the football coverage because there is such focus on content for their social channels,” said one experienced sports broadcaster.

“The bosses might look at hits on social media but is that always meaningful engagement? Is it being watched by the person who pays the Sky bill? And what if that person feels alienated and decides, ‘There’s nothing of extra value for me except a few live games which I can watch down the pub’.”

The broadcast source also questioned the money that is being paid to top ‘talent’ punditry who have quite limited alternative options, potentially at the expense of reporters who might deliver breaking news or in-depth reports. Licht, who started out in advertising and audience research at Sky 25 years ago, has huge faith in Sky’s understanding of its customer-base and viewing habits. Audience numbers for the Premier League, the Carabao Cup final, Formula One and the much admired Ashes cricket coverage have each set all-time records over recent months.

New avenues are also being explored and the success of behind-the-scenes sports documentaries by companies like Netflix and Amazon is not lost on senior executives. “Do we have the ability to do programmes at that scale … and having that kind of popularity? I absolutely think we will have,” says Licht.

The emergence of Sky-owned NOW TV and the successful introduction of ‘genre’ channels like Sky Sports Cricket and Sky Sports Premier League means  there is far more flexibility in how viewers can selectively pay to watch. Comparative overall subscription numbers are not disclosed.

Comcast, who outbid Fox to buy Murdoch’s Sky shares in 2018, were widely judged to have paid an inflated price at $39 billion and are now carefully monitoring costs.

At a time when viewers unquestionably are moving more to their phones (whether via social media or podcasts) for their sports news and debate, prioritising key live rights and viral punditry ‘talent’ like Neville, Carragher and Keane is a central strand in the strategy.

Recent Premier League rights cycles have cost Sky more than £3.5 billion and, with the Disney/Discovery-backed TNT taking over BT Sport and the spectre of competing streaming channels like Amazon and Apple TV, Sky are already preparing for the next bidding process for the matches from 2024-5 until 2027-8.

Sky have also just invested in a state-of-the-art new studio in Isleworth and, away from the flagship Premier League coverage, they are well placed with their live rights. A new five-year deal with the English Football League has just been announced which maintains the 3pm blackout that is relevant to keeping a programme like Soccer Saturday.

F1 is contracted until 2029 and the English and Wales Cricket Board and the International Cricket Board until respectively 2028 and 2031.

The feeling at Sky is that they should be judged on how they now emerge from this summer which, by a combination of design and timing, is in such unprecedented flux.

“Our coverage of football is evolving to reflect the changing habits of our viewers and ensures we continue to deliver the best experience for customers,” said a Sky Sports spokesperson.