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Opinion: Live Sport Gives Broadcasters a Sporting Chance

With Irish eyes focused firmly on Ireland’s final group match against Scotland in the Rugby World Cup, Colm Sherwin, Chief Digital & Investment Officer with Core says that it has been a good year for live sports and fans alike. It has also become a must-have for broadcasters.

Last Summer’s debate around the GAAGO app wasn’t a surprise to many in the sporting world. The demand to enjoy sport live, at the touch of a button, has increased in recent years. Most sports fans are now surprised when their favourite sport or team isn’t available to watch live across the numerous TV stations or online platforms now providing this offering.

“The expectation for live sport to be available to the customer is certainly not waning..”

For the GAAGO app launch (Championship), the demand to consume both club and county games was certainly high. Whether people are willing to pay for it long-term is a question we’ll only find out over time, but either way, the expectation for live sport to be available to the customer is certainly not waning, with most broadcasters and online platforms set to increase their investment in this area over the next few years.

The top 50 programmes for 2022 (TAM) reinforces this demand. 31 of the top 50 programmes were sport, with the All-Ireland Final between Kerry and Galway topping the sport list with 872,000 adults aged over 15 watching this live. In the first half of 2023, the trend continues, with 32 sports programmes dominating the top 50. Only last week, Ireland’s win over South Africa brought in an average audience of 1.125m adults aged over 15 years old, making it the most watched programme of the year to date.

Historically, the most popular sports, the more successful teams, the global Irish underdog stories have always brought in large audiences, but the demand to expand outside of these traditional audience pullers is what the TV stations have started to put more of a focus on.

Ireland’s first ever qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup saw all 64 matches available across RTÉ. An average of 550,600 peopled watched Ireland’s last group game against Canada, setting a record as the most viewed women’s team sporting event in Irish television history.

“As the women’s game grows, so does the demand or expectation to have as much of these games live on our TV sets.”

Another example of the rise in popularity of the women’s game was with the final that drew in 463,000, versus 212,000 back in 2019. As the women’s game grows, so does the demand or expectation to have as much of these games live on our TV sets.

Another broadcaster testing the waters recently was Virgin Media who have increased their investment in League of Ireland football which is going through a boom period in recent times with attendances increasing as people potentially become frustrated with the cash-rich Premier League in the UK.

In the past, RTÉ has always been the “home” of League of Ireland, albeit nowhere near the investment the league often demands, but Virgin now see an opportunity to move into this area with initial viewership numbers coming in quite positive, 33% higher than their normal schedule.

TG4’s coverage of the GAA Club Championship has been applauded for years, but in recent times even RTÉ has started to lean-in to the earlier county games. Two weeks ago, the quarter finals of the Dublin Championship were aired on RTÉ 2, albeit a few hours before the Ireland v South Africa game.

Viewership averaged at 42,000 which was substantially ahead of the previous weeks programme shown at that same time, Top Gear, which brought in an audience of 11,000. Even though numbers are small versus the bigger games, these initial tests for the second year in a row for RTÉ reinforce the potential the broadcasters see in live sport.

As the GAA County Championship season is at an end for the year, so does the GAAGO app debate. We can expect this debate to resume early next year once the schedule is revealed and people pick at the games they can’t see live on TV. More specifically, the games they can’t see free-to-air on TV. In Australia, during the World Cup, only 25% of games were available free-to-air. The rest could be watched on subscription station, Optus Sport. This would be a concern for both fans and sporting bodies alike if this trend grew in Ireland.

In the 1990s, cricket participation in the UK famously declined as more and more games were only available on subscription stations.  As someone that has every sports subscription under the sun, I understand the reasoning behind why all sport can’t be free-to-air, but at the same time I welcome this increased focus on live content by all the broadcasters.

“Viewership of TV will continue to fragment, but an increased focus on live sport could be the way to reverse this trend.”

TV consumption for adults aged over 15 is down 3% year to date. The younger audiences can be down as much as 18%. Viewership of TV will continue to fragment, but an increased focus on live sport could be the way to reverse this trend. Multi-platform viewership could also be a method of bringing in new revenues. Whether it’s behind the scenes content, whether its post-game interviews, or whether it’s the standard replays of the games, the opportunity to expand beyond the TV screen is certainly an opportunity as investment in sport content increases.

For me, the best part about sport is watching it live and I welcome any increased investment in this area.  As the Sky Sports Premier League ad back in 2022 said – “it’s only live once”. Whether it’s free-to-air, or paid, I’ll be watching. The question is: will everyone else?

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