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Live sports coverage ‘bucks the trend of big switch from linear to digital TV’

Live sports coverage on free-to-air linear channels in the UK is bucking the trend of viewers migrating to streamers and digital platforms, according to BBC director of sport Barbara Slater OBE.

Barbara Slater

Huge viewing figures for events such as the Olympics, the recent FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Women’s Championship provide the kind of mass audience impact the likes of Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video still cannot compete with, Slater told the Outside the Box conference in London yesterday.

“These big sporting moments on public service broadcasting unite the country,” said Slater. “The peak audience for the London 2012 Olympics was 27 million, while the men’s Euros final between England and Italy in 2020 drew 30 million.

“The Lionesses winning the ladies’ Euros final was the second most viewed programme in any genre of programming last year. That would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. So we see an incredible ability for sport to buck the trends of the big switch from linear to digital TV.”

The Outside the Box conference is organised by EveryoneTV (fka Digital UK), parent company of UK free TV platforms Freeview and Freesat. Slater joined a panel discussing the coverage of major sporting events on free TV.

In recent years, several global streamers have acquired lucrative rights to live sports. Prime Video, for example, acquired 20 live Premier League fixtures for the 2022/23 season, as well as NFL games in the US for its Thursday Night Football shows.

Meanwhile, US streamer Paramount+ is set to ramp up investment in live sports broadcasting, Eduardo Lebrija, Paramount executive VP, regional leader and chief commercial officer for Latin America, told C21’s Content Americas event this week.

However, industry experts say streamers are struggling to compete with free TV broadcasters because of technical issues with live streaming.

“We estimate that streamers will spend US$6bn on sports rights in 2023,” said Tim Bridge, lead partner for Deloitte’s sports business group. “Live content remains at the heart of business models for broadcasters globally.

“The challenge for streamers is the lag with online sports coverage. The truth is that if you’re watching a Premier League football game on Amazon, you can get a notification on your phone that a goal has been scored before you see it happen on screen. Viewers don’t like that – they want to experience the moment then and there. Linear TV still delivers that.

“Another factor is that streaming television doesn’t necessarily create that environment where we all get together with friends and family to watch live sport, as we would on traditional terrestrial TV.”

In the UK, major sporting events such as the FA Cup final, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the FIFA World Cup are protected for free-to-air channels by the Broadcasting Act of 1996. Under the same legislation, a second tier of events – Six Nations rugby, Ryder Cup golf and cricket test matches held in the UK – can be provided by subscription TV, provided that secondary coverage is offered to linear broadcasters.

Slater said this legislation must now be updated to a hybrid model that strikes a more modern balance between digital and terrestrial.

“We have to recognise that audiences now consume sport in slightly different ways,” Slater said. “The legislation needs to be modernised, and a review is currently underway to ensure that there is an on-demand element to those protected events. That’s really important to incorporate going forward.”

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