Live sports coverage on free-to-air linear channels in the UK bucks the trend of viewers migrating to streamers and digital platforms, according to BBC Sport Director Barbara Slater OBE.
Huge viewership for events like the Olympics, the recent FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Women’s Championship are creating the kind of mass audience impact that Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video still can’t match, Slater said on Outside the Box -Conference in London yesterday.
“These big sporting moments in public broadcasting unite the country,” Slater said. “The peak audience for the London 2012 Olympics was 27 million, while the 2020 Men’s EURO final between England and Italy attracted 30 million.
“The Lionesses winning the Women’s European Championship final was the second most watched program of any program genre last year. That would have been impossible just a few years ago. So we’re seeing an incredible ability for sport to buck the trends of the big shift from linear to digital TV.”
The Outside the Box conference is organized by EveryoneTV (formerly Digital UK), the parent company of UK free TV platforms Freeview and Freesat. Slater participated in a panel discussing the coverage of major sporting events on free television.
In recent years, several global streamers have acquired lucrative rights to live sports. For example, Prime Video has acquired 20 live Premier League games for the 2022-23 season, as well as NFL games in the US for its Thursday night football shows.
Meanwhile, US streamer Paramount+ is looking to increase its investment in live sports broadcasting, Eduardo Lebrija, Paramount’s executive vice president, regional head and chief commercial officer for Latin America, said at C21’s Content Americas event this week.
However, industry experts say streamers are struggling to compete with free TV broadcasters due to technical issues with live streaming.
“We estimate streamers will spend $6 billion on sports rights in 2023,” said Tim Bridge, Lead Partner of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group. “Live content remains at the heart of the business models for broadcasters worldwide.
“The challenge for streamers is the lag in online sports coverage. The truth is that if you’re watching a Premier League football match on Amazon, you can get a notification on your phone that a goal has been scored before you see it on screen. Viewers don’t like that – they want to be there in the moment. Linear TV still delivers that.
“Another factor is that streaming TV doesn’t necessarily create the environment where we all get together with friends and family to watch live sports like we would with traditional terrestrial TV.”
In the UK, major sporting events such as the FA Cup Final, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the FIFA World Cup are protected for free-to-air channels under the Broadcasting Act 1996. Under the same legislation, a second tier of events – Six Nations rugby, Ryder Cup golf and cricket test matches played in the UK – may be provided via subscription television, provided that secondary transmissions are offered to linear channels.
Slater said that legislation now needs to be updated to a hybrid model that strikes a more modern balance between digital and terrestrial.
“We have to recognize that audiences are consuming sports in a slightly different way now,” Slater said. “Legislation needs to be modernised, and a review is underway to ensure these protected events include an on-demand element. This is really important for the future.”