Before the Premier League restarted on June 17th, Futures Sport + Entertainment predicted that the 2019/20 season would end up being the most-watched season ever in the United Kingdom. Following a record number of games televised, the recent growth in Premier League audiences, and COVID-19’s impact on both sport and television viewership, those expectations weren’t just met but far exceeded – outperforming the 2018/19 season by more than 52%.
There were some major stories that came out of an exciting 2019/20 season, including Liverpool crowned champions for the first time in 30 years, Leicester bumped from next season’s Champions League by Manchester United on the final day, and Bournemouth relegated to the Championship after five strong years in the Premier League. However, the biggest story of the year remains the creativity and resiliency the Premier League showed in restarting their season amid a global pandemic.
Following a 100-day stoppage in play, the Premier League triumphantly returned without fans in the stands but plenty of creative solutions to keep fans engaged throughout the final stretch of the season. The League embraced a suite of changes to provide increased television access and enhanced game-day production quality to fans, including broadcasting games on Free-to-Air stations throughout the UK, inserting technological advances such as crowd noise and virtual fans into the broadcast, and lifting the traditional Saturday 3 p.m. blackout to give fans even more access to live games each week. These changes were all major factors in helping push last season’s viewership over the top and could be a catalyst for more record-breaking numbers in season ahead.
For the first time since the Premier League was founded in 1992, live games were available to watch Free-to-Air across BBC and Pick throughout the UK. The Merseyside Derby on June 21 – boosted by coverage on Pick – even broke the record to become the most-watched Premier League game in the UK ever with more than 5.5 million viewers.
Two weeks later, the Southampton v Manchester City game broadcast on BBC broke that record again as the game received 5.7 million viewers. While the first game on BBC (Bournemouth v Crystal Palace on June 20th) didn’t break any records, it still received a sizeable audience of 3.9 million, which was only just behind the most watched game at the time (the 2012 Manchester Derby).
The BBC coverage not only attracted record audiences but also brought in more female viewers carrying more than 35% of the station’s viewership – more than any other broadcaster throughout the season. While Sky 1 is not entirely Free-to-Air, as it still requires a Sky subscription, these broadcasts also attracted more female viewers (31%) than the typical Pay-TV broadcasters.
The UK government mandated that the Premier League make games available Free-to-Air during the restart to widen access to fans as they could not attend matches. It was also beneficial to the Premier League as their live content also became accessible to a new group of viewers.
Of viewers that watched three-plus minutes of live game action on either BBC or Pick during the restart, 65% had not watched a Premier League game during the 2019/20 season prior to the postponement on March 13th. This group had a near even split among gender demographics with women accounting for 49.8% of the total audience – significantly higher than the 28% share carried from Sky Sports and BT Sport coverage during the restart. The number of new unique viewers was actually 1 million higher than the entire number of those that watched three-plus minutes of the 2019/20 season before the pandemic halted play, which was seven months long compared to just one month for Project Restart – indicating just how salient Free-to-Air coverage is for attracting the largest number of viewers.
The 2020/21 schedule only has one game slated for Free-to-Air broadcast, so the next step for the league will be converting these new viewers into regular fans. A recent survey conducted by Futures provided some hope on this front, as 23% of UK respondents expressed interest in paying for a subscription to watch the Premier League going forward. The next highest property among UK fans was Formula 1 at 11%, so there is certainly appetite for people to pay for live Premier League content.
The eagerly-awaited crowd noise feature, including team-specific chants to mimic the presence of real fans in attendance, was available on all Sky Sports Main Event broadcasts after the restart. There was debate over the authenticity of the fake crowd noise and our research underlined that it was a divisive addition.
When asked about the impact of new innovations on the viewing experience, respondents had the strongest feelings towards the artificial crowd noise. Nearly 25% felt it had a negative impact on the viewing experience, which was the highest negative score out of the four options they were given – seat coverings, artificial crowds, and fan reaction big screens were the other three – and 37% felt it had a positive impact, which was also the highest positive score based on the options.
While sentiments seemed split on the added noise, viewership trends indicated that fans strongly preferred the piped in crowd noise over the alternative. When games were simulcast on both Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Premier League (the network’s offering without artificial crowd noise), over two-thirds of viewers (79%) chose to watch on Sky Sports Main Event – compared to a 59% share prior to the restart.
Looking Ahead to the 2020/21 Season
Despite pressure from the UK government to televise all games without fans next season, the Premier League initially decided to televise 220 lives games – meaning the remaining 160 games would not be available to watch in the UK. Unlike during the restarted 2019/20 season, this upcoming season would not see all games televised and no matches would be available on Free-to-Air channels. However, with COVID-19 still affecting the 2020/21 season, the Premier League did adjust its original broadcast schedule to mitigate the effect on viewers.
The 3 p.m. broadcast blackout would remain lifted while fans are still unable to attend games, and the Premier League awarded 20 additional matches to its broadcast partners (Sky will air 12, BT will air six, and Amazon Prime will air two). A couple extra midweek rounds will be added to accommodate the extra live games, meaning that these games will not be televised simultaneously across different channels, which should help boost viewership numbers.
In the days leading up to the new season, the Premier League clubs agreed to televise all 28 games in September. The additional 11 matches are split across Sky (6), BT (3), Amazon Prime (1), and BBC (1). Sky and Amazon Prime have not yet announced whether they will make any games available Free-to-Air like they did during the restart.
The added broadcasts mean that a total of 231 games will be shown live this season – only 15 fewer than the historic number televised during the 2019/20 season. The Premier League are still considering options for its October games, but by maintaining some of the recent broadcast changes, the 2020/21 season audiences should initially remain near the record highs we saw at the end of last season.
The “top six” Premier League teams are typically a large driver of television audiences, but promoted and relegated teams can also have a large impact on viewership. The 2020/21 season welcomes back Leeds, Fulham, and West Brom to the Premier League, with Watford, Bournemouth, and Norwich playing in the English Football League (EFL) Championship – England’s second-tier league.
Leeds are back in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years after winning the EFL. The first game back for Leeds was a highly-anticipated one against the Premier League champions, Liverpool, and it certainly delivered! It was an exhilarating game, which saw Liverpool in front three times but pegged back on each occasion before scoring a late penalty to ensure all three points. The game aired on Sky Sports and the audience was higher than 92% of the televised games in the 2019/20 season, which bodes well for 2020/21 audiences! Leeds also have a long-standing and fierce rivalry with Manchester United, which will be reignited when the teams meet on December 19th. These two teams last met in a competitive match on September 20th, 2011, so the excitement for this game should be particularly high and translate to strong television viewership.
A Google Trends search since the start of the 2019/20 season shows that both Leeds and Aston Villa – a historic and well-supported team that managed to avoid relegation on the final day of the season – were more searched in the UK during this time than Bournemouth and Watford, which could also bode well if those searches can be converted into viewership.
Leeds and West Brom also tend to have stronger followings than some of the teams they are replacing on the table. The West Brom-Leeds match on January 1st was the second most watched EFL game in the 2019/20 season – higher than almost one-fifth (19%) of Premier League games last season. Both teams were constantly among the top-rated EFL matches throughout the season as well, featuring 17 times in the top 25. Meanwhile, Watford and Bournemouth ranked among the bottom-third of the Premier League (14th and 17th respectively) in viewership during the 2019/20 season prior to the postponement. While Premier League games are on average more popular than EFL ones, two well watched teams in Leeds and West Brom replacing less popular ones in Watford and Bournemouth will hopefully result in increased audiences.
More Record-Breaking Ratings to Come?
The 2019/20 season benefitted from the heightened enthusiasm for the Premier League’s return after a 100-day hiatus. The pent-up demand led to record audiences, and that excitement appears to be flowing into the 2020/21 season as well.
A recent Futures’ study shows that the excitement for the Premier League has continued throughout the entirety of the restarted season with more than 23% of UK respondents acknowledging increased interest in the Premier League throughout the pandemic – higher than all other major sports.
The 2019/20 season ended as the most watched ever in the UK, with the extra Free-to-Air coverage boosting audiences and attracting new viewers, as well as providing a lift for brands. The record-breaking viewership totals coincided with increased exposure for club partners across the league as well. Clubs took advantage of the empty stands by placing large branded coverings across seating in each team’s stadium. This innovative approach provided team partners and sponsors with prime marketing real estate during games, as the branded sections receive plenty of field-level attention during television coverage.
While the Premier League, broadcasters, and brands alike all continue to plan for the upcoming season, there is a level of optimism that strong television viewership will sustain. The addition of more televised matches (including one on BBC), paired with the rising demand for live sports, and the promotion of more popular teams, the Premier League should continue to see its ratings soar throughout the 2020/21 season.