Sports broadcasters Setanta and Sky are facing a tough fight to inject new momentum into the market for live Premiership football after data revealed that viewing figures had stalled.
Exclusive figures published today show that the market is stagnant, with an average of 1.19 million viewers attracted to the first 50 Premiership matches broadcast this season on the main Sky sports channels. This compares with 1.25 million when a snapshot was taken in April 2005, ahead of the auction for live rights for the next three seasons, and 1.23 million at the same stage of the 2004-05 season.
Sky parent BSkyB will lose its monopoly on live broadcasting rights next season when Ireland's Setanta starts screening live Premiership action. The sports pay channel agreed in May to pay £392m for live rights to 46 matches over three seasons starting in 2007-08. BSkyB has, however, retained the most attractive packages, including the 4pm Sunday slot.
With BSkyB paying a total of £1.3bn for 92 live matches a year, the latest deal is costing the broadcasters £1.7bn in total - 66 per cent more than the sum raised by the previous auction in 2003.
This should mean a bonanza for the clubs, several of which have attracted the interest of prospective foreign buyers since the deal was unveiled. But it also means broadcasters will be particularly keen to drive viewer growth to make their investments pay.
The new ratings figures - collected by the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb) and supplied by media agency ZenithOptimedia - indicate this may be difficult. The flat viewer numbers over the three seasons suggests that TV audiences for top-flight football may have reached their natural level.
As a rule of thumb, matches involving two of the "big four" clubs - Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal - attract around three million viewers when shown in a prime slot. The least popular matches - involving the likes of Watford and Fulham - struggle to get above 500,000 viewers.
The biggest draw so far this season was the showdown between Man Utd and Chelsea on 26 November. This drew an average audience of 2.95 million viewers. The least-watched game involved newly promoted Watford and Sheffield United two days later. This was seen by an average of 486,000.
Chelsea were the side featured most on the main Sky sports channels, with 10 appearances in the first 50 live televised matches. Blackburn Rovers, Charlton Athletic, Middlesborough and Wigan Athletic appeared just three times each.
The latest figures emerge as trends in match attendances appear to be polarising. While Premiership giants such as Man Utd and Arsenal have expanded ground capacity and filled the extra seats, crowds outside the big four are, in some cases, on the slide.
Based on figures compiled by Football365.com, average attendances at Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic so far this season are, in each case, significantly down on levels for the whole of 2005-06. Even Newcastle United's loyal support has been affected, with average crowds slipping below the 50,000 mark after exceeding 52,000 last season - a trend unlikely to be improved by last week's FA Cup drubbing at the hands of Championship side Birmingham City.
Arsenal's move from Highbury to the larger Emirates Stadium and the expansion of Man Utd's Old Trafford have been responsible for an increase in overall Premiership attendances, however. After 228 matches, just over half the programme, the average top-flight match had attracted 34,297 spectators, against 33,885 last season and 33,892 in 2004-05.
Research released last week by Virgin Money found that 46 per cent of Premiership supporters said they had gone to fewer games this season. Virgin said its Football Fans Price Index showed that the cost of going to games had risen by 17 per cent since the start of 2006.Reuse content