Record Premier League TV audiences show unanswered demand for fair play

Record Premier League TV audiences show unanswered demand for fair play
Southampton's Che Adams (centre) celebrates scoring his side's winner against Man City at St Mary's Stadium, Southampton. The match was the most watched game on TV in  Premier League history.

IT wasn’t Blackburn’s attempt to scupper their title hopes in Anfield. It wasn’t the stunning Collymore winner against Newcastle, nor Beckham’s goal from his own half. Leicester City’s fairytale triumph didn’t make the grade, Cantona’s kung-fu kick at Crystal Palace missed the cut. Even Aguerrrroooooo against QPR appears to be not worthy.

No, the most viewed match in Premier League history was between a side that’s already secured second place in the league and a club that will at best claim 11 or 12th place on the table.

Strangely, this week saw the largest television audience ever for a televised Premier League match and it was between Southampton and Man City at St Mary. Hardly a glamour match at this stage of the season yet there it is, 5.7 million viewers tuned into the game. To be fair, it did provide a good goal and a surprise result, but it still had little or no significance to the rest of the league. 

Of course, it wasn’t because this pointless end of season game was so enticing that made this the most popular TV Premier League game of all time, it was that it was free to air and on the BBC rather than on pay-TV channels like Sky and BT.

The BBC’s debut pandemic Premier League broadcast last month created the first in a series of viewing records when the 2-0 win for Crystal Palace against struggling Bournemouth drew 3.9 million viewers. That was leapfrogged, in turn, by the next record of 5.5 million watchers of last month’s Merseyside derby that while shown on pay-TV channels on Sky Sports, it was also made available free-to-air on their Sky One and Sport Mix channels. That was a game of importance as Liverpool had not yet secured the title at that stage but was hampered by the simple fact that British viewers per capita have far less access to Sky platforms than we do in Ireland. One wonders how many would have tuned-in if it was on the Beeb or ITV?

A view of the Premier League match between Bournemouth and Crystal Palace at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth. The game inexplicably broke the TV viewing record before that too was surpassed by the next free-to-air game.  	Picture: Will Oliver/PA Wire/NMC Pool
A view of the Premier League match between Bournemouth and Crystal Palace at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth. The game inexplicably broke the TV viewing record before that too was surpassed by the next free-to-air game.  Picture: Will Oliver/PA Wire/NMC Pool

Anyway, the thriller that was the Cityzens versus the Saints now holds the record beyond any usual rationale to reality or form.

That so many people would watch a match with no effective impact on anything except the clubs' final points tally, shows the extent and hunger for live football on terrestrial TV that still exists 30 years after the games departed free-to-air for the big pay-off in the Sky.

In those 30 years, the pay-to-view model has earned the sports channels and the league clubs billions of pounds in revenue and elevated the Premier League to elite levels in world sport. But has struggled to maintain significantly high viewing figures in comparison to sometimes banal, but free, early-round FA Cup ties on the BBC or ITV.

Even in this, their glory year of ending the 30-year league-title famine, Liverpool have only averaged viewing figures in the UK of 1,662,801 per match. Manchester United – 1,520,948, Tottenham Hotspur – 1,286,847, Chelsea – 1,143,175 and the previous champions Manchester City managed just 1,136,054 viewers on average. This drops significantly, as you'd suspect when it comes to teams lower down the league with West Ham United gathering 636,296 viewers on average and Bournemouth at the bottom with 625,427. Southampton have an average of 760,833 viewers on pay-per-view, nearly five million off what they got this week on free-to-air.

In light of these figures, is it not time that the BBC and ITV be awarded some sort of games package next season that would answer the obvious demand and allows fans greater access to the game? Even a few free matches a season would have a big benefit for hard-pressed fans especially in this era of pandemic constraints.

It might even be time the BBC re-considered their precious advertising ban, just for the Premier League games, which could then significantly help bankroll the more cash-strapped parts of their service.

Live football continues on the BBC next Wednesday, with the 'much-anticipated' clash between Burnley and Wolves at 6pm. Will this upper mid-table humdinger (ahem) break the 6 million mark?

That may be a stretch even for Turf Moor.

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