Champions League viewing figures have been so low since the move to BT Sport that UEFA will insist upon changes when selling the next set of rights, it is claimed.
UK television ratings have shown BT attracted only a fraction of the audience for this season’s play-off round and group stages in comparison to ITV and Sky Sports 12 months ago.
The broadcaster’s free-to-air channel, BT Showcase, has attracted an average peak audience of less than 200,000 for its Champions League coverage, compared to the average peak of 4.4 million who watched the play‑off round and group stages on ITV last year.
Even matches involving English clubs attracted an average peak of audience of only 207,000, with even the network’s subscription channels drawing in more viewers. Manchester United’s play-off against Club Brugge in August, for example, attracted a peak of 212,000 on Showcase, compared to 776,000 on BT Sport Europe.
This is seen as highly unusual, with ratings for free-to-air sport generally dwarfing those of equivalent programming on pay-TV. The average peak for all play-off round and group-stage matches involving English clubs last season, for example, was 792,000 on Sky Sports, compared to 4.96 million on ITV.
According to the Daily Telegraph, ‘free‑to-air coverage was forced upon BT by UEFA’s marketing agency, Team, which did not want the entire competition behind a paywall.’
The report in the newspaper continues: ‘One source claimed that the result had been a half-hearted approach to the Showcase channel, exemplified by an absence of first‑pick games that will continue in a last-16 line-up featuring no English teams.
‘It is also understood that while UEFA is still content with a deal that more than doubled its UK broadcast income, it will insist upon changes to the existing model when it sells the rights to the 2018‑21 seasons. Whether that is demanding a better free-to-air offering or taking the entire competition behind a paywall remains to be seen.’
BT Sport defended its figures, with a spokesman telling the newspaper: “We’re pleased with the strong audiences we are seeing for UEFA Champions and Europa League football across our BT Sport channels, and we’ve seen a 46 per cent increase year-on-year in the average BT Sport audience over the last three months we’ve reported.
“To compare the viewing numbers of BT Sport Showcase, which launched this season, with those of ITV, which has been running for decades, is unfair.
“Football fans will be able to enjoy a selection of top European matches on Freeview via BT Sport Showcase this month, including Juventus v Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund vs FC Porto.”