Last month brought news that digital broadcaster PPTV had paid a record $700 million for a three-year (2019-20) contract to broadcast the English Premier League in China.
The sum paid by PPTV, a division of Suning Holdings, is understood to be worth almost 12 times the existing deal with Super Sport Media Group, worth around $60m over three years, according to reports.
That China is undergoing something of a football craze is undisputed. Earlier in 2016, Suning bought a majority stake in Italy’s Internazionale. The trend appears to be driven, at least in part, by president Xi Jinping’s plan to build a “sports economy” around football.
With a population approaching 1.4 billion, fast growing urbanisation and a burgeoning middle class, it is easy to understand why broadcasters in China see so much value in football.
But while China’s fascination with the beautiful game may be rising from a relatively low base and therefore have plenty of room for growth, the story is very different in the sports country of origin, the UK.
Indeed, TV ratings for viewership of Sky Plc’s Sunday afternoon Premier League football slot declined by a frightening 19% this season. After eight games, the average audience for Sky’s “Super Sunday” English Premier League match was 1.03 million viewers, data from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board revealed.
Bosses at Sky are no doubt worried that the sliding viewing figures are a precursor to so-called cord-cutting, whereby subscribers ditch their packages for cheaper alternatives.
Across the Atlantic in the USA, a similar story is playing out with National Football League (NFL). Viewership through the first seven weeks of the NFL season is down by 12% in the US, according to a report from the New York Times.
Some commentators suggested that the declines in both cases were caused by competition for eyeballs from the Rio Olympics and the 2016 European soccer championship. This almost certainly had an effect, but it is unlikely to have accounted for the full drop. It seems likely that the viewership for these sports has reached the peak of a bell-curve. These games are not only competing with big ticket events such as the Olympics; they are also competing with – or rather wrestling with – the changing habits of a younger generation. Smartphones command ever more attention as people turn to social media for a drip feed of video clips –many of them sports related. As technology changes, tastes also change: Few thought that e-sports would become a spectator sensation, yet they have, and this continues to be a high-growth area.
While nobody can predict the future, it’s always sobering to remember that nothing stays the same forever. As in all industries, broadcasters must keep their fingers on the pulse and adapt to change.