Spoilt for choice

Is Sky's subscription-TV dominance about to be challenged? Gavin Willacy explains why he parted with his credit-card details

For seven years, I have proudly resisted the lure of a Sky Sports subscription, defying the seductive glances of pay‑TV. I watched my football in the flesh, and live on the Beeb, ITV and Five. An hour of MOTD was enough Premier League action for me and I was an expert on MLS and Serie A. Sky was a luxury I could easily do without. This summer I was not so sure.

Under the previous broadcast deals, about 100 live club and international games were available on free TV each season, with dozens more in World Cup and European Championship summers. That’s a couple of games a week, without spending a penny. Over the past two seasons, two-thirds of “free” games were on terrestrial TV, the others on free-to-view digital. However, more than half were European club matches, meaning that only those clubs in Europe or having an FA Cup run appeared in your lounge. In 2006-07, 15 Premier League teams were shown: the “big four” were on 42 times, while Newcastle’s and Spurs’ seemingly endless UEFA Cup campaigns stretched to 12 televised games each. Six top-flight clubs were on just once, two twice, and five did not appear at all.

Last season, I nearly overdosed on Spurs, Rangers and Everton, as Five snapped up UEFA Cup games on the cheap from as early as July, before Aberdeen turned up on BBCi as the state broadcaster realised it may as well spread BBC Scotland’s fare nationwide. But who is watching? BBC1 and ITV1 both command around 20 per cent of viewers every day, the other three terrestrial channels mopping up another ten per cent. That leaves half the TV audience surfing the nether world of digital and satellite.

Sky Sports commands more than three per cent of viewing during the football season, with around 1.5 million watching SS1, close to a million SS2 and about half a million tuning in to SS3 and Sky Sports News, the later mainly via Freeview. Sky tends to get around one million armchair viewers for live Premier League games, rising to over two million for the biggies. Their Champions League audiences are similar. Even the Irish League and Scottish Cup attract around 300,000, although fewer than 100,000 of Sky’s eight million subscribers watch Primera Liga action.

Potential audiences on free TV dwarf those of pay-TV: the Beeb and ITV were thrilled to get seven to eight million (around a 30 per cent share) for most of the knockout games at Euro 2008. Incredibly, more people watch digital channel Five US every day than Eurosport and Setanta Sports combined. It’s surprising, therefore, that Five hasn’t made a more serious attempt to push football on its three digital channels.

Almost no one is watching Setanta at present – its audience share at the end of last season was just 0.3 per cent, a tenth of Sky Sports’. But its aggressive purchasing this year should see that shoot up. Setanta has amassed a pretty impressive portfolio for the next four years: 46 Premier League games a season, 60 SPL, 25 FA Cup and all England home friendlies. In addition, it has all the away World Cup qualifiers for the four home nations plus the Republic of Ireland. Oh, and Barnet v Arsenal reserves in mid-July.

Setanta is reducing its non-League coverage slightly but is reportedly delighted with viewing figures that vary hugely from 20,000 to 200,000. The presentation – cameras and mics by the dug-outs, interviews with managers at half-time etc – may be lifted straight from American sports broadcasting, but it makes a pleasant change for British football coverage.

ITV4, available to the 80 per cent of us who have Freeview, raked in just under a million for the later stages of the UEFA Cup, easily their biggest programme each week. ITV’s second Champions League game, now lost to Sky, usually did two-thirds of a million. It does still have the UEFA Cup, and has added some FA Cup and England home games, enabling it to spread their coverage throughout the year.

The BBC is in a worse predicament. Overflowing with platforms on which to screen football, it has very little to show this season. From 2009-10 it will have a share of Football League rights with Sky, meaning it will have ten Championship games (not the play-offs) and a Carling Cup semi-final and the final plus highlights, but what it does with them remains to be seen. Expect much of it to be shunted on to BBCi until the end‑of-season “£60 million Premier League” showdowns. Interactive supposedly satisfies the demanding on-demand crowd but, with no listings in the paper, BBCi could find itself with a repeat of the ITV Digital fiasco of 2001-02, with audiences smaller than attendances, as the likes of Doncaster v Watford hides away under the red button. Meanwhile you’ll do well to find any live football on BBC1 this campaign.

Setanta and Sky have been left to battle it out, using other sports as weapons. Setanta are way behind on the prestige competitions, but have top-class golf, cricket, rugby union and league to challenge Sky. The price war has yet to start, really, but the troops are being armed. Setanta’s package – Setanta Sports 1 and 2, Setanta Sports News, NASN, golf, racing, Celtic, Rangers, Arsenal and Liverpool channels – is available for a tenner a month via Virgin Media, while Sky Sports Mix will cost you £34. At what stage will Uncle Rupert slash his pound-a-day prices?

But need there be a winner in this race? Murdoch is happy to share coverage of the major football codes in the US and Australia with other broadcasters, merely paying for the privilege of first dabs on the prime-time games. That could be enough to secure sufficient subscribers here, too.

All of which means penny-pinching fans have a tough choice to make: see less live football on the box or take the plunge. I decided to go for it. I’ve signed up for Setanta. Within 45 minutes of its first live game of the season – Manchester City’s UEFA Cup tie in the Faroes – I was sound asleep on the sofa. Money well spent, then.

From WSC 259 September 2008