- June 24, 2021

Sports TV: it’s always the season - Part 1

Iain Fraser
Iain Fraser
Data Services Analyst

There’s always a good reason to watch sports on TV. These days it’s the men’s Euro 2020 football championship (2021 edition), whilst later in the summer it might be the Tokyo Olympics, or even the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. With dedicated, 24 hour a day sports channels, as well as major broadcasters dedicating prime time hours on their main channels to showing the live theatre that is sport, sports are everywhere on TV.

Sports TV viewership tracks closely large events; from the chart below we can see that the first time the sports viewership index creeps above 100 (which indicates the average viewership level for the January to May 2021 period) aligns with the weekend of the FA Cup 4th round which, aside from the FA Cup Final, was the most watched TV sports event of this period in the UK. Clearly there was a lot of interest as the bitter rivals Manchester United and Liverpool played out a 5-goal thriller at Old Trafford.

Like a perfect storm, the biggest spike in TV viewership of sports events occurred at the beginning of February 2021. A combination of several major sporting events being broadcast had viewers glued to their screens. In American Football, Superbowl LV coverage kicked off in the late hours of 7th February 2021, with the match broadcast into the early hours of 8th February here in the UK. The BBC had free to air TV coverage which presumably swelled the normal viewership figures for the sport from the regular NFL broadcaster, Sky Sports. Also contributing to this spike in viewership was the start of Rugby Union’s 2021 men’s 6 Nations Championship with games including the Calcutta Cup clash between the ‘Auld Enemies’ England & Scotland, as well as Wales vs Ireland, and midweek FA Cup fixtures (on free to air TV channels) from 9th to 11th February 2021, so a very busy sporting week in February in the BBC and ITV calendar.

In addition to these matches, after players completed their mandatory COVID protocol hotel quarantines in Melbourne, there was the first Tennis Grand Slam of the year – The Australian Open, between the 8th and 21st February 2021, as this highest spike in the viewership index for the 5 months combined continued. This raised viewership index period was drawn out some more thanks to the second round of fixtures in the 2021 Rugby Union 6 Nations on 13th & 14th February 2021, and UEFA Champions League knock out matches on 16th and 17th February 2021, meaning the viewership index was slow to fall back to 100. Other times when the viewership index peaked coincide with the Cheltenham Horse Racing festival (16th to 19th March 2021) and the USPGA Championship, one of Golf’s major championships, from 20th May 2021.

Many sports stem from recreational pastimes, and so they are traditionally held on that most precious of downtimes, the weekend. Even with work patterns shifting away from the normal 9 to 5 for some folk in the modern day, it hasn’t altered the traditional schedule of weekends for sports matches; it is hardly a surprise then that viewership is highest on Saturday and Sunday (chart below).

Other days of the week are not entirely bereft of sports programmes: football has Monday night fixtures, predominantly on Sky Sports. In addition to this, it is usually a common day on which match highlights are replayed – so if you missed BBC’s Match of the Day programme late on a Saturday night, or simply fell asleep part way through watching it live, Monday is a good chance to catch up on the Football action missed on the weekend. Occasionally there are Champions League fixtures on a Tuesday and Wednesday evening, but these fixtures are not every week, which is why viewership on these days is below the weekly average.