It hailed its surprise capture of the Champions League as “the real game-changer” but as BT Sport prepares to broadcast the last 16 of the competition,Inside Sport can expose the shocking viewing figures from the first season of its £897 million deal.
UK television ratings for the Champions League have, with the play-off round and group stages attracting a fraction of the audience – including those games made available free-to-air. While a significant drop-off was inevitable, the scale of it has provoked a Uefa rethink about how the competition rights will be sold at the next auction this year.
A key element of BT’s triumphant bid for the Champions League and Europa League 2½ years ago was its pledge to show some matches – at least 12 in the former competition – free-to-air to reach the widest possible audience. But its BT Showcase channel has proven a complete flop, attracting an average peak audience of less than 200,000 for its Champions League coverage, compared to the average peak of 4.4 million who watched the play‑off round and group stages on ITV last year.
Focusing on matches involving English clubs – which attract the biggest ratings – the average peak audience for BT Showcase rises only slightly above 200,000, with even the network’s subscription stations drawing more eyeballs.
For example, a peak of just over a million viewers watched the first leg of Manchester United’s play-off against Club Brugge on BT Sport Europe in August. Despite the second leg being shown free-to-air, it attracted a peak of 212,000 on Showcase, compared to 776,000 on Europe. The next game involving an English team on Showcase was Manchester City’s second Group D fixture at Borussia Mönchengladbach, which peaked at 155,000 on Showcase but 496,000 on BT Sport 2.
It was a similar story with Chelsea’s fourth Group G game against Dynamo Kiev and Arsenal’s penultimate Group F match against Dinamo Zagreb.
This runs counter to the natural order in which ratings for free-to-air sport dwarf those of equivalent programming on pay-TV. That was perfectly demonstrated last season when the average peak for all play-off round and group-stage matches involving English clubs on Sky Sports was 792,000, compared to 4.96 million on ITV.
The fact that ITV has also attracted an average of 1.3 million viewers to its Wednesday-night highlights show demonstrates there is still an appetite for the Champions League.
It is also not as if BT’s Gary Lineker-fronted coverage has been below par – while its companion mobile-phone app has been a revelation. So what is going on?
Inside Sport has learnt that free‑to-air coverage was forced upon BT by Uefa’s marketing agency, Team, which did not want the entire competition behind a paywall. One source claimed that the result had been a half-hearted approach to the Showcase channel, exemplified by an absence of first‑pick games that will continue in a last-16 line-up featuring no English teams.
It is also understood that while Uefa is still content with a deal that more than doubled its UK broadcast income, it will insist upon changes to the existing model when it sells the rights to the 2018‑21 seasons. Whether that is demanding a better free-to-air offering or taking the entire competition behind a paywall remains to be seen.
Sponsors would certainly be unhappy with the status quo, according to Steve Martin, of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment. He said: “The UK market is a massive market commercially and if one of your markets for the top five – England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy – is playing out to audiences as low as that, you’re going to question the value and you’re going to go straight to Uefa.”
BT Sport defended its viewing figures. A spokesman told Inside Sport: “We’re pleased with the strong audiences we are seeing for Uefa Champions and Europa League football across our BT Sport channels, and we’ve seen a 46 per cent increase year-on-year in the average BT Sport audience over the last three months we’ve reported. To compare the viewing numbers of BT Sport Showcase, which launched this season, with those of ITV, which has been running for decades, is unfair.
“Football fans will be able to enjoy a selection of top European matches on Freeview via BT Sport Showcase this month, including Juventus v Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund vs FC Porto.”
Uncertainty about future of Champions League
The ratings travails of BT have coincided with mounting uncertainty about the entire future of the Champions League. Renewed talk of a European Super League overshadowed Monday’s general assembly of the European Club Association, which is flexing its muscles just as Uefa prepares to sell the next set of television rights for Europe’s premier club competition. Many clubs believe that the Champions League format is preventing them from maximising revenues, with the group stages marred by too many unglamorous fixtures.
As well as a 20-team Super League, proposals have included automatic Champions League qualification for a cabal of Europe’s top clubs. Both would face fierce opposition from within the ECA’s 220-club membership and would raise the spectre of the return of the old G14, which was disbanded under pressure from Uefa.
Much of the revamp talk appears to be a tactic to encourage European football’s governing body to find a way to boost the value of the Champions League closer to that of the Super Bowl, which makes much more money despite boasting far fewer followers. But there is also a genuine desire to sex up the group stages, with a senior executive at one of England’s Champions League clubs telling Inside Sport one idea would be to create a mechanism by which it could be reduced to 16 teams.
That might involve the competition kicking off with a knockout round that would cull half of the 32 qualifiers.
Whether clubs would trade off more money for the potential loss of two thirds of their Champions League fixtures remains to be seen.