Forget those viewing ratings

Live sport often tops the viewing rating lists. Major tournaments and decisive moments in the national leagues still draw lots of viewers. Even so, big changes are afoot in the way people watch sports. Viewing ratings are on a downward trend.

Text continues below the image

Each year, for instance, fewer people tune into the Champions League on TV. The number of football fans who are prepared to sit out a football match for the full 90 minutes is dwindling. But what does that tell us about the popularity of sports?

Each year we carry out surveys in 25 countries to measure the level of interest in specific sporting events such as the Olympic Games, Formula 1 and the Champions League. Contrary to what the viewing ratings suggest, global interest in the Champions League is rising steadily and was actually 3% higher last year than the season before.

At local level, temporary peaks occur in response to the success of specific clubs. In the Netherlands, for instance, Ajax’s thrilling adventure in the Champions League triggered a 10% jump in interest. And there was also a striking increase in interest in African countries, marking the popularity of the African stars in Liverpool’s triumphant Champions League squad. But, as noted, the overall level of interest is also rising steadily. Clearly, the Champions League is more popular than ever. So where have all those TV viewers gone?

The level of interest measured in our survey reflects the extent to which people feel engaged with the sport. That sense of engagement, however, is no guarantee for high viewing ratings. The way in which people keep up with sporting events is changing. Traditional TV viewership is shrinking and engagement is often expressed in different ways, particularly among younger generations.

Young sports fans are shifting their focus to new forms of content and are embracing novel devices, such as smartphones and game consoles. The television is losing relevance. Young sports viewers (under 30) are much less likely to turn to the TV than fans of 45 or older. It’s not that they are less engaged in their favourite sport; they are just less tied to a single location. And that’s understandable. Because you can watch live sports anywhere: the company is more important than the location!

Over three quarters of the fans under 30 use a smartphone to follow sport. Focusing on a single match on a single screen is also a thing of the past. Six out of ten young sports viewers (under 30) use multiple screens to watch different matches at the same time. The younger generation also wants to be fed different content. Highlights and goals are more likely to attract their attention than live matches. And what really turns them on is personal ‘athlete generated’ content.

Young fans are used to having access to sports content anywhere and at any time. For many young fans, illegal online streaming is the method of choice for viewing sports. And they are not even aware that these streams are run by pirate organisations that steal the content from media companies that have paid huge sums of money for the broadcasting rights. Early in October I was in London for the Leaders in Sport Conference, where Yousef Al-Obaidly – CEO of BeIN Media Group – warned that piracy was the biggest threat for sports organisations. According to Al-Obaidly, a staggering 50% of the fans watch Premier League matches via illegal streams – so it’s hardly surprising that the ‘legal’ viewing ratings are falling sharply.

All these developments have caused a slight panic among sponsors. Sponsor deals are still largely exposure-driven. The approach is fairly straightforward: how many people watch the Champions League and how many can you reach with your logo on pitchside advertising boards? So a lot is riding on the viewing ratings. But what if these ratings suddenly plummet during the term of the sponsor deal? Then the sponsor and rights holder no longer have anything to hold on to.

The simple fact that someone watches a match on TV (or not) says nothing about their engagement with the sport or the extent to which the sponsor’s message reaches them. In other words, viewing ratings have become a useless instrument for sealing sponsor deals. The value of sponsorship, after all, lies in the extent to which it enables sponsors to reach consumers and nurture a personal relationship with target audiences.

Sport is still a fantastic vehicle for growing brands. But it’s high time that the sports world realises that the real value of sports cannot be simply measured in old-world terms of ratings or reach.