This Boxing Day, Amazon will show every Premier League match live. There’s been a lot of fuss about it, but what’s in it for them? Is this the future?
This is a guest post by John Nicholson. All views expressed are John’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.
Amazon has paid around £90m for the three-year package of Premier League football matches shown in early December and over the Christmas week.
In 2018 alone, Amazon turned over $232bn, so it’s basically a few coins it’s found down the back of the corporate sofa.
It’s not that interested in the football, of course. It’s a way for its service to reach more people. After the first round of games shown 3 – 5 December, it attracted ‘a record number of sign-ups’ after ‘millions’ watched.
But a ‘record number’ could mean anything without context. In the same way Sky and BT are pretty secretive about subscription numbers, positive PR seems to be how the football broadcasting industry works.
For example, what does ‘watched’ really mean? Traditionally, you only need to see three successive minutes to be counted as a viewer. Everyone could’ve turned off after three minutes, so bored by it they were.
Covering the huge costs
It’s just as well that the £90m is chump change to Amazon, because football broadcasters have likely never made any money from broadcasting football, per se.
It costs around £9m a game for the rights fees. BT Sport attracts anything from 200,000 to a million (its record is 1.7 million peak), while Sky ranges from 750,000 to two million. Sky broadcasted 128 games last season – 112 didn’t attract over two million).
That makes the ad revenue attracted too anaemic to do the heavy-lifting required to cover those fees, let alone production costs, so the losses have to be amortised across the corporation.
And that’s how it’s always been. Even globally, an average of 10 million people watch any Premier League game live.
The ‘product’ sells itself as hugely popular, and it is the most-watched league, but in absolute terms, very few people are paying subscriptions to watch it.
I’d wager it will be the same with Amazon simply because I can’t see why its coverage, which is apparently identical to everyone else’s, would be more popular. It’s the same football done the same way.
The paywall problem
We know there’s a potentially huge audience for football on TV in the UK. We know this because when an FA Cup game is on the BBC it can attract up to eight million.
When ITV showed the England v Croatia World Cup semi-final, 30.4 million people watched it – the largest audience for a single channel broadcast in British history.
So there’s no shortage of people who like watching football on TV, but there is a big shortage of people who want to pay to do so.
And therein lies Amazon’s problem, and indeed all broadcasters who want to show football behind a paywall. You can dress it up as a premium product, call it ‘Prime’ or ‘Premier’, aggrandise it as much as you want, but one unchanging truth is that it’s still just football.
That means that it’s inconsistent, often boring, often poor entertainment. It’s sometimes thrilling, but not often. Sometimes good, but only in short passages.
Football fans know this and that’s fine, but don’t try to pretend it’s an upmarket premium product for which we must pay big money or, indeed, any money. We know it isn’t. That’s why so few of us do.
Corporations often seem to think that football can be sold just like any other product, but it can’t – it’s unique. No-one goes to a restaurant that serves terrible food more than once, but we watch terrible football week after week.
That’s because it’s more than a mere leisure purchase.
Is the future actually free-to-air?
The principle that you maximise your audience is well established in the USA.
They don’t put their most popular sport behind a paywall because they know it’s better to have a big audience on free-to-air TV than it is to shrivel it behind a subscription fee.
Big audiences can be monetised in many different ways and ensures healthy interest in the future.
Here’s my idea; if you want a big audience, I think it’s clear from the numbers that free-to-air on BBC and ITV is the only way to get it. It would also render illegal streaming pointless.
It would return live football to the common embrace and give us the shared experiences so essential for a closer cohesive society. Importantly, it would also inspire people to play more and be more active. There is cast iron proof of that.
If football was free and accessible to all, ‘listed’ as a protected game in the way the World Cup already is, it could offer huge health and social benefits to society. Think fitness and well-being, productivity, social exclusion – all of which cost us money.
Football on terrestrial free-to-air TV as it once was. Yes, it sounds old-fashioned but I’ll tell you this: I don’t think the really radical future is on Amazon. The future is in the past.
This was a guest post by John Nicholson. All views expressed were John’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.
What do you think of John’s idea to show football on free-to-air TV? Would it work? Would it be worth it?
Have you taken up an Amazon Prime trial off the back of the new Premier League offering? Will you stick with it?