“Sky are ruining football” is a phrase thrown around a lot these days, and undoubtedly several fans of the beautiful game will have said it to their mate in the pub this week following the announcement of a ground-breaking new TV deal by the EFL. Sky Sports have once again won the rights to broadcast Championship, League One and League Two games, agreeing a £600 million deal for coverage between 2019 and 2024. As part of the new deal, the broadcaster will introduce an interactive service for midweek games for viewers to pick and choose matches to watch (much like BT do with the Champions League), whilst all clubs will also be allowed to live-stream “any league match via their respective iFollow (or equivalent) service that takes place outside the blocked hours of 14.45-17.15 on Saturday afternoons and that is not broadcast live on Sky Sports” to the UK and Ireland.
It’s very hard to argue with the fact that the money involved in this new deal is hugely beneficial to teams. The £600 million figure represents a 36% increase on the current deal, so in the words of EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey, “delivers a guaranteed increase in the level of income distributed to EFL Clubs from 2019/20 and long-term financial certainty”.
What’s more, the opportunity to generate additional revenue through live-streaming makes this news even more logical. Watching games live on iFollow is currently only available for overseas fans, costing £110 for a season pass and £5 for individual games. Replicating, or perhaps even slightly increasing, these prices once the UK and Ireland can get in on the streaming action will help add to each club’s respective money pot.
There has also been the suggestion that midweek attendances will continue to decrease if fans are given the choice to stay at home and watch online. This is true, of Reading’s seven home midweek games in the regular Championship season in 2016/17, only the games against recently-relegated and well-supported clubs, Aston Villa and Newcastle United, were above the campaign’s average Madejski Stadium attendance of 17,505. Moreover, the Thursday night game against QPR shown on the telly in January was attended by just 12,655 supporters - significantly the lowest number of people at a home league game last season.
Yet whilst it is great to see the Mad Stad as full as possible, in terms of money (sorry, but football does now revolve around it), ticket revenue is dwarfed buy the rewards that broadcasting brings. Under the current TV deal, Championship clubs reportedly each receive a share of £6.3 million of the television deal, with an additional £100,000 for every home game broadcast on Sky and £10,000 for televised away games. If these numbers are correct, Reading would have banked £6.61 million from being on the box in last season excluding the three play-off ties that were also all shown live. As aforementioned, this is only going to increase due to the new deal and live-streaming opportunity making losing a few hundred ticket sales a very worthy sacrifice.
Of course most of the time, the priority of fans is not the revenue the club generates but the atmosphere at home games, and there have been some complaints that with attendances decreasing, the Madejski may become even more ‘soulless’ than it already is. But in reality, the die hard fans that make the most noise every week aren’t going to be the ones to stop going after the introduction of live-streaming.
Whilst Sky will continue to move fixture dates and times around for broadcasting, which isn’t always convenient for fans, midweek games on the channel’s interactive service and the iFollow service undoubtedly is a great move for fans. Long away trips on a Tuesday night, such as to Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Leeds that the Royals have had in recent seasons, are just completely unjustifiable for the many supporters who have to be up early for work or school the next morning. By live-streaming these midweek games, not only are the EFL and Sky providing fans with a better way to follow along than Twitter or radio updates, but they are also boosting the general reach and exposure of the club as well.
But hey, we might not even need to consider this debate if Reading become a Premier League club within the next two seasons and therefore join a world where the latest TV deal is worth an eye watering £8.3 billion...