Jurgen Klopp can complain all he likes but Liverpool are victims of their own success. The champions will always be the first or second choice for broadcasters. Only Manchester United have anything like the pulling power of the Merseyside club.
Klopp has a point when criticising the schedule. The German’s main argument is that playing on a Wednesday night and again at 12:30 on Saturday afternoon is too quick a turnaround. Des Kelly, BT Sport’s pitchside interviewer, countered that Klopp was wrong to blame the broadcaster. The decision on the time slots for games was agreed by the Premier League.
Liverpool’s drawing power was underlined last month by research into top-flight viewing habits. ‘Armchair Fans: Modelling Audience Size For Televised Football Matches’ was published by the Centre for Sports Business at the University of Liverpool Management School.
The study looked at the audience ratings for 790 English top-flight games screened between 2013 and 2019 and, using Bournemouth as a reference point, rated the pulling power of all 28 clubs that featured in the Premier League in those six years. “Two clubs stand out in terms of appeal to a national audience,” the study says. “If either Liverpool or Manchester United were substituted for AFC Bournemouth in a televised match, the ‘brand effect’ alone would be predicted to raise audience size by about 75 percent.”
The next most popular team is Arsenal, who generated a 43 percent upswing on the base level. Manchester City, the dominant side in the study’s timeframe, only produced a 26 percent boost compared to Bournemouth.
This means broadcasters like BT will choose Liverpool and United matches at every opportunity. The increase in audiences drives advertising revenue.
The 12:30 slot is an important one for the Premier League. It means the match is played in prime time in Asia: 18:00 in India, 20:30 in Hong Kong and China and 21:30 in Japan. The Asian market accounts for about a third of the Premier League’s overseas income. The Saturday lunchtime games are not for the benefit of domestic audiences but for viewers in the Far East.
The same trends that the academics discovered in the home market are likely to be repeated in Asia. The demand is to watch Liverpool and United. Anfield has entered another successful phase while Old Trafford is enduring a less uplifting era. That means Klopp’s team are probably outstripping their great rivals in terms of attracting audiences.
“I’d love to get viewing figures from India and China and compare Liverpool and United to Real Madrid and Barcelona,” Ian McHale, one of the paper’s authors, said. “Right now there’s an argument for Liverpool being the biggest draw in the world.”
Klopp’s boss, John W Henry, is keen to revamp the financial structure of the English game. The principal owner and head of Fenway Sports Group (FSG) was deeply involved in producing the Project Big Picture plan that proposed a radical overhaul of the sport’s domestic power structure. Henry has long believed that the likes of Liverpool and United should earn a greater proportion of the overseas television income. It is nearly a decade since Ian Ayre, then Anfield’s managing director, provided an insight into FSG’s thinking when he suggested that clubs should be allowed to sell their own foreign rights. “If you’re a Bolton fan in Bolton, then you subscribe to Sky because you want to watch Bolton,” Ayre said in 2011. “Everyone gets that. Likewise, if you’re a Liverpool fan from Liverpool, you subscribe.
“But if you’re in Kuala Lumpur there isn’t anyone subscribing to watch Bolton, or if they are it’s a very small number. Whereas the large majority are subscribing because they want to watch Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal.”
Bolton are long gone from the Premier League but could be easily be replaced in Ayre’s sentence by Brighton or half a dozen other top flight teams without changing the sense of the comment. The kind of thinking that Ayre articulated is at the heart of Project Big Picture. Henry believes the clubs that have the widest appeal should have a bigger say in the running of the game. Selling individual rights is not on Henry’s agenda at the moment but, if the opportunity arose, FSG would try to squeeze the maximum value out of any deal. Kick-off times would be negotiable. The American owners are in thrall to Klopp but if he took his complaints about scheduling to his own boardroom they would fall on deaf ears. The manager is easier to ignore than the Asian market.
The 53-year-old is already concerned about the impact of the crowded festive period on his squad but it is unlikely that Premier League clubs will ever experience a quieter Christmas. The research shows that domestic viewing figures rise by some 10 per cent for fixtures over the holidays compared to if they were played at any other time of year.
Klopp’s concern for his players is genuine. Other managers worry about the impact of playing too many games over a short timeframe, too. There is little chance that the broadcasters, the Premier League and the club owners will make the sort of changes Klopp would like.
Liverpool will bear the brunt of fixture congestion. BT will not look at the team’s previous game when given the chance to select the champions for a lunchtime match, they will only look at the potential viewing figures. It is the downside of being popular. Like it or not, Klopp will have to live with the situation.