More Money, More Football, but Are We Now Reaching Saturation Point?

Before this gets mistaken for a nostalgic lament about the good old days on ITV, it is worth pointing out that BT Sport has done a good job of broadcasting the Champions League since wrenching the rights from Sky in 2013, offering a slick, professional product that looks and feels the part. Lengthy analysis, access to every game, a warm as-it-happens goals show hosted by James Richardson and astute use of social media arguably represents value for money. Yet, despite all those advances, that nagging sense that people might be about to switch off won’t go away.

There are few better bargaining chips than live sport, which is why BT has been accused of squeezing customers to fund its increasingly intense battle with Sky. The telecoms giant has parted with £1.18bn to secure the exclusive rights for Champions League and Europa League football until 2021, a 32% increase on the cost of the current three-year deal, and it has announced its third price hike in 18 months, including higher costs for broadband and calls and a new £3.50 a month charge to subscribe to BT Sport.

There has been inevitable criticism, but the business model makes sense. Because people cannot resist live football. But what if they stop paying? Or at least scale back a little? What if they conclude that the Champions League is the same old show featuring the same old privileged few and turn their attention elsewhere?

It is a valid question and one that has already been asked this season. For while you will not see a higher standard of football anywhere else, even in the World Cup, doubts are growing over the competition’s wider appeal.

Sky responded to a drop in Champions League viewing figures by placing their eggs in the Premier League basket and trusting that the drama and intensity of English football better captures the public’s imagination after a drop in viewing figures. There is a reason Sky and BT paid £5.1bn for live Premier League football.

While Chelsea have raced clear at the top of the league, there were six realistic title challengers at the start of the season. The football is not as refined as in Spain and English teams largely struggle in Europe, but brilliant marketing means we all agree there is no such thing as an easy game in the Premier League. Financial inequality remains a major issue, despite Leicester City’s incongruous title, but the lack of unpredictability in the Champions League feels even more pronounced, to the extent that the presence of Juventus – the biggest club in Italy – in the 2015 final was greeted as a minor surprise. Perhaps English fans were more engaged when their teams were dominating. In the past seven seasons, though, at least two of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have reached the last four, a familiarity that risks fostering ambivalence towards the same storylines playing out in slightly different ways each year.

That growing disengagement comes at a time when Uefa has promised more money to leading clubs and guaranteed four places for the top four leagues, currently England, Germany, Italy and Spain, from 2018-19.

For a hefty fee, it all belongs to BT. How it would love its monopoly on European competitions to lead to an increase in broadband customers and it will not be a surprise if the increase in its rights costs lead to higher prices for non-BT customers. For people with a Sky subscription, BT offers three months free and a £15 activation fee to sign up to its £27.99 per month HD package or £22.99 a month without HD.

The Champions League is leaving terrestrial television for good. There will be no more Champions League highlights show on ITV. BT is due to sub-licence deals with free-to-air partners and plans to offer clips, highlights and a weekly magazine show on social media for free, but there is a risk of missing out on a wider audience. Even the Premier League has Match of the Day as a free-to-air highlights show.

Pay for the lot and you will have access to a lot of live football. From 2018, two Champions League group matches on each Tuesday and Wednesday will start at 6pm, with the other six games each day moving from 7.45pm to 8pm. There will be weeks when you can watch at least one game a day. Some people will love the feast. Others might feel bloated. A diet of illegal streams might be more appetising.

BT argues that there is a need for an alternative to Sky and insists it is happy with viewing figures for the Champions League. Yet there was a clear lack of jeopardy in this year’s group stage. So many games were devoid of meaning by the end. While BT will hope it was a one-off, that kind of fatigue threatens a bubble’s structural integrity.

The Guardian Sport