Author Mark Richards

Advances in technology are going to lead to a revolution in sports broadcasting, with even more money flooding into the top teams. How will we watch our sport in the future? And what does it mean for the less glamorous fixtures?

Are you old enough to remember this?

Or maybe you grew up with this theme tune?

In the old days it was simple: your football team played on a Saturday afternoon – none of this lunchtime nonsense – and you would wait feverishly for the score to come through on the teleprinter, and then the vidiprinter.

…And it was a momentous day in your life when your parents finally decided you were old enough to stay up and watch Match of the Day.

Is sports broadcasting dead?

Then Sky came along: we had to get used to watching football on Sunday afternoon, plus lunchtime and evening kick-offs. And with the Premier League and the ever-increasing TV contracts, the money flooded into football. Players began to earn ten and hundreds of thousands a week – and if you wanted a backup left back, there would not be much change from £15m.

It was hailed – or condemned, depending on your point of view – as a revolution in sports broadcasting, as other sports followed football down the same lucrative path. But in terms of what is coming – in terms of what technology is going to allow – then, as the old saying goes, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet…’

Saturday night in Manchester

Over the weekend New Zealander Joseph Parker beat Britain’s Hughie Fury to retain his World Boxing Organisation heavyweight championship. I am not a boxing fan, so I have to confess that I had never heard of Messrs Parker and Fury before the weekend. I have, however, heard of YouTube.

And in a first for British boxing, traditional sports broadcasting was by-passed with Saturday’s fight being available on pay-per-view (PPV) via YouTube. Fights have been screened on pay-per-view for a long time now: you can go right back to 1990 when they were 1m PPV ‘buys’ for the Buster Douglas/Evander Holyfield fight.

Mick Hennessy, the promoter of Saturday’s fight, makes an interesting point. The move away from traditional sports broadcasting is about attracting a wider, younger audience:

“I have teenage children and they watch everything on mobiles and tablets. It is very rare that they are actually in front of a TV. And if they are, it is a smart TV with an app like YouTube.”

Mayweather vs. McGregor

Sports broadcasting

The man who has benefitted most from PPV is Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather. The US boxer has featured in the top 3 PPV events, with his fight against Manny Pacquiao in 2015 attracting 4.6m PPV buys. All that, however, pails into insignificance compared to his recent bout against mixed martial arts champion Conor McGregor, which will break the PPV buys record and eventually gross close to $1bn, contributing to an immense pay-day for both fighters (which could, apparently have been even ‘immense-er.’ Up to 3m people are reported to have watched the fight via illegal streams).

Poor old Manchester United

This is where it gets interesting. Last week Manchester United announced record revenues of £581m for their last financial year. ‘Record revenues for United as TV cash soars’ said the headlines. In fact, TV cash rose from £140m to £194m – a very healthy rise of 38%. But in comparison to the revenues for the Mayweather/McGregor fight, an insignificant sum. The simple fact is that the revenues for that one fight exceeded the combined revenue of both Manchester United and Chelsea.

Do I really want to watch Brighton vs. Newcastle?

Let us go back to the Parker vs. Fury fight, which cost fans £14.99 to watch on YouTube. The same day, in the same city, fans were paying between £35 and £58 to watch Manchester City play Crystal Palace.

The same weekend, I was paying my subscription to Sky who, as part of that subscription, offered me the chance to watch Brighton beat Newcastle 1-0. No disrespect to fans of the Seagulls and the Magpies, but I had simply no interest.

Increasingly, consumers are going to want to – and be able to – pick exactly what they want to watch. Just as importantly, they will be able to avoid paying for a sport they do not want to watch. Right now my monthly subscription to Sky is roughly equivalent to me sending Sainsbury’s money every month and the supermarket deciding what food I am going to eat.

Welcome to the future

“We’re on YouTube in about 25 countries – markets like the US, Mexico and Germany,” said promoter Mick Hennessy.

“[YouTube] cuts out a lot of people, a lot of organisations and takes us straight to where we want to be. If we get this right, there will be nothing bigger.”

And that is exactly where we are going. I do not want to watch Brighton v. Newcastle and Manchester United do not want me to watch it either. If I were a fan, they would want me to spend £14.99 to watch them win at Southampton.

Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward has already said that he expects Amazon and Facebook to make bids in the next round of Premier League rights – which could see even more money pouring into the coffers of England’s top clubs. The Premier League sold the rights for the 2016-2019 seasons primarily to BSkyB and BT, for a total of £8.4bn. That is for three seasons: but if one fight can gross $1bn, how much is three seasons of Premier League football really worth?

Make no mistake, this is going to happen. Last month Amazon outbid Sky, paying £10m for the UK rights to the ATP tennis tour – its first major sports acquisition outside the US. In the States, Amazon streams an NFL American football game on Thursday nights: Facebook already has a deal to show 22 MLS (Major League Soccer) games a season. Both companies are interested in bidding for cricket’s Indian Premier League.

You might well ask where this leaves the Brighton v. Newcastle game – and if there are ‘unwanted’ fixtures in the Premier League, what is the future for the rest of the football pyramid? There are plenty of unanswered questions – but technology has made another revolution in sports broadcasting inevitable.

Ah well. Maybe there will be a nostalgia channel for those of us who still yearn for kick-offs at 3 o’clock on Saturday and players numbered 1 to 11…