“Wide exposure and an accessible narrative is crucial for growth.”

Football.  Rugby.  Cricket.  Golf.  Formula 1.  Lately it’s been difficult to find a televised sports event that you don’t have to pay for.  Today, more of sport’s top leagues and competitions are moving behind the pay wall and limiting their free content, as their rights holders opt for the guaranteed cash flow pouring from major broadcasters.
With all the wonders of the digital world competing for people’s attention, traditional sports are starting to suffer from dwindling audiences and a lack of participants.
Will more free-to-air content help sports acquire the most precious of things – a person’s time?  We think it may help…

The pay wall is hard to climb

By definition, paid-for content is harder to access than free-to-air content.  Not everyone can, or wants to, afford it – especially the next generation of fans and athletes.  The challenge sports rights holders face is being able to balance their free content with their value to broadcasters.
The Premier League does this relatively well – games are available to watch only via subscription packages, however Match of the Day remains the most-watched sports programme on UK television.  Are free-to-air highlights the key to keeping fans happy?
In an age where ‘dwell time’ is considered a currency, the fight for a person’s attention has grown more fierce – especially the attention of the digitally-savvy and mobile-happy ‘Generation Z’.  Perhaps offering only free highlights is the sensible move.  With all the noise the digital world creates, we think sports need to carefully balance free-to-air content with paid-for content.
match of the day

Does it depend on the sport?

There isn’t a one-size-fits all strategy for free-to-air content and sports.  Football in the UK strikes a nice balance with its free-to-air highlights, but it also enjoys a wealth of free content from an active community of clubs and players.
Not all sports enjoy universal popularity and accessibility…
Remember the 2005 Ashes?  That epic display of cricket attracted 2.5m viewers to Channel 4, with 8.4m people transfixed by the climax of the fourth test.  We know what happened next – cricket moved to paid-for TV.  In 2015, the peak viewing figure for a home Ashes test was 1.3m – that’s an 84.5% decrease in viewers.  The World Snooker final aired on the BBC had almost three times as many live viewers as the last home Ashes series.
It’s not surprising that cricket has been leading the trend of tumbling participation numbers.  Between 2006 – 2015, the Sport England Active People survey recorded a decline of 32%.  Will other sports suffer the same fate?  After the recent decision to move The Open behind the pay wall, is golf at risk?
Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it’s hard to see any other reason why participation in traditional sports is slowly diminishing other than a lack of accessible free-to-air content.
billy bowden

Formula 1 – the 1 to watch         

In Formula 1, we are witnessing a multi-billion dollar sport currently trying to reinvent itself.  Since 2008, Formula 1 has lost one third of its viewership, yet still opted to move the sport completely behind the UK pay wall with Sky.  Many think this will be the point fans disconnect with the sport.
Bernie Ecclestone was evidently not an internet person.  Liberty Media, F1’s new executive, are keen to show they are the opposite.  Fewer restrictions on social media for teams and athletes is one way F1 is attempting to compensate for the lack of free-to-air live content.
The question is, can F1 offer enough?  The recent wrist-slapping of Lewis Hamilton for posting his pole lap in China on Instagram is not the correct attitude to have in a sport suffering from a waning interest from audiences and sponsors.  Short of the live event itself, few elements of a sport, especially highlights, should sit behind a pay wall.  Wide exposure and an accessible narrative is crucial for growth.
lewis hamilton

The bottom line

More people watch stuff when it’s free.
Can sports strike deals that allow more people to watch sport without taking a hit in their revenue?  From 2013-2015, broadcasting made up 32.5% revenue of Formula 1’s revenue; sponsors and advertising, 15.0%.  Which one is more sustainable?
For participation sports like cricket, it’s a pressing concern.  If these sports fail to win the attention of the next generation within the highly competitive digital space, their future is in serious doubt as the number of active fans continue to fall.  Without an audience, there is no value in broadcasting.
Each sport must find a growth strategy that works for them, they must compensate for a move behind the pay wall with an effective digital strategy.  If not, they run the risk of being swallowed up by all forms of free entertainment.