One of the most searched for terms on the internet, often leading to fuzzy, low-resolution, free streams from across the world. But could the decision by BT Sport to show this year’s Champions League and Europa League finals free on YouTube be the start of a seismic change to how we watch football?
BT Sport have had a challenging first year after acquiring the exclusive live rights to the UEFA Champions League across the 2015-16 to 2017-18 campaigns at a cost of £897m. UK television ratings for the Champions League have nosedived since it moved from ITV and Sky Sports, with the play-off round and group stages attracting a fraction of the audience – including those games made available free-to-air on its BT Showcase channel.
The BT Showcase channel has proven a complete flop, attracting an average peak audience of less than 200,000 for its Champions League coverage, compared to the average peak of 4.4 million who watched the play‑off round and group stages on ITV last year. This runs counter to the natural order in which ratings for free-to-air sport dwarf those of equivalent programming on pay-TV.
The fact that ITV has also attracted an average of 1.3 million viewers to its Wednesday-night highlights show demonstrates there is still an appetite for the Champions League.
It has been reported that free‑to-air coverage was forced upon BT by UEFA’s marketing agency, Team, which did not want the entire competition behind a paywall. It is also understood that while UEFA is still content with a deal that more than doubled its UK broadcast income, it will insist upon changes to the existing model when it sells the rights to the 2018‑21 seasons. Whether that is demanding a better free-to-air offering or taking the entire competition behind a paywall remains to be seen.
Sponsors would certainly be unhappy with the status quo, according to Steve Martin, of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment. He said: “The UK market is a massive market commercially and if one of your markets for the top five – England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy – is playing out to audiences as low as that, you’re going to question the value and you’re going to go straight to UEFA.”
While a significant drop-off was inevitable, the scale of it has provoked a UEFA rethink about how the competition rights will be sold at the next auction this year.
So the decision by BT Sport to show this month's two major European football finals on YouTube highlight how both broadcasters and sport are having to adapt in the face of changing consumer habits and new technology.
John Petter, Cheif Executive of BT Consumer, said the move would bring BT Sport to "a new generation of younger sports fans who view their entertainment online, through social media and on their mobile devices".
And, with that in mind, he announced an intention "to make these finals the most social sports broadcast ever, with lots of exciting content in the build-up and on the night across YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Vine".
The potential could be huge; demand for showpiece football games is at the highest it has ever been. Advertisers can potentially reach audiences at levels never before experienced, while much more space would open up for a greater range of advertiser to get involved. The increase in the amount of space, combined with the relative inexpense of YouTube to traditional TV may see ROI's skyrocket, while greater personalisation available through channels like Snapchat will enable advertisers to benefit from the outsized impact to spend that these channels have on brand metrics.
However, for those advertisers who usually heavily feature on TV it could be an unwelcome move; a smaller, no longer captive audience could potentially lead to worse returns while TV sponsorship would almost definitely become less profitable, unless costs were to fall dramatically.
There are examples from other sports – in an effort to grow its audience and take advantage of the growing dominance of digital the NFL partnered with Twitter in a deal to broadcast live games for free and online in the US. Since launching its channel in 2015, NFL content on YouTube has garnered almost 900 million views and this latest move will see the top clashes added to the channel for the start of the 2016/17 season.
“This expansion of our partnership will make it easier than ever for the millions of highly engaged avid and casual fans on YouTube and Google to discover and access an even greater variety of some of the most valuable content in the sports and entertainment business,” Hans Schroeder, the NFL’s senior vice president of media strategy, business development and sales, said in a statement.
The decision to stream the final on YouTube open up a range of new digital opportunities for brands and advertisers to engage with football fans in the UK. The NFL deal makes more of that league's content available through Google Search, including in-game highlights. That means, when searching a specific NFL team in Google, an official NFL video will display along with related news in a dedicated box at the top of the search results.
Manchester City is also at the forefront of activities exploring how new technologies can be harnessed to enhance the fan experience; they recently tested a live virtual reality broadcast of a home game with fans in London, New York and Melbourne.
"I don't think that the experience is ready to replace watching it live or even TV," admitted Diego Gigliani, Manchester City's director of marketing and media, "but it shows the amazing opportunities of what it can do."
This season's Champions League final, which will take place on 28 May, will see Real Madrid take on Atlético Madrid in Milan.
The Europa League final between Liverpool and Sevilla is in Basel on 18 May.
Point of view of Daniel Breyer, Business Science