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Watching Brief (Vol.47) Special Focus: UK TV Sports Viewing – Review of 2012

Golden year for British sport delivers record-breaking television audiences in the UK. Pauline McVey, analyst for SportBusiness Intelligence, reviews the most-watched events of 2012 in the UK

Widely acclaimed as the greatest ever year for UK sport, 2012 produced an unparalleled number of top performances from UK athletes which attracted big audiences for a number of sporting events.  While a victorious home Olympic Games predictably dominated the list of most-watched sports events, along with quadrennial ratings winner, football’s European Championships, other annual events attracted bigger audiences than in previous years, bolstered by UK success.

Taken from the forthcoming Watching Brief: Annual Review 2012 report to be published at the end of January, the top 10 most-watched sports events in the UK are almost entirely from the Olympics and Euro 2012.  The closing ceremony of London 2012 was the most-watched event, attracting 24.55 million viewers (79-per-cent share), marginally ahead of the opening ceremony which drew 24.36 million (81-per-cent share). 

The Olympic closing ceremony on BBC1 was the most-watched television programme of any genre in the UK in 2012 and indeed since ratings body BARB began reporting viewing figures in 1981.  The previous highest sports audience since 1981 was for Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s last ever performance in the 1998 Winter Olympics figure skating event.

Competitive Olympic action took up two other places in the top 10 – the evening coverage of Day 9, which included Usain Bolt winning the men’s 100m, attracted 13.11 million (48.9-per-cent share), the seventh highest audience.  The audience peaked at 19.466 million (61.8-per-cent share) for the race itself.  The culmination of “Super Saturday”, the previous day, in which three UK athletes won gold athletics medals, drew 10.86 million (47-per-cent share).

All four of England’s matches at Euro 2012 feature in the top 10 list. England’s defeat to Italy on penalties attracted 20.04 million (67.4-per-cent share), the third highest sports audience of the year and the highest audience for a football match in eight years, since England’s exit to Portugal at the same stage of Euro 2004, which drew 20.66 million viewers.

The other Euro 2012 match to make the top 10 was the final between Spain and Italy, which drew 14.289 million (53.9-per-cent share) across both BBC1 and ITV1, the fifth highest audience. 

The Euro 2012 final was one of three events of the top 10 shown by ITV.  All others were shown by the BBC.  It’s an almost exact reversal of the previous year, when ITV’s dominance in live, regular season football produced seven of the top 10 sport audiences in 2011, against the BBC’s three.

The only other event to make the top 10 outside of the Olympics and Euro 2012 was the Wimbledon men’s final, boosted by the participation of UK tennis player Andy Murray, drawing 11.516 million (57.4-per-cent share), the ninth top audience.  The match peaked at 16.9 million, the highest peak for the tournament since at least 1990.  Murray’s run to the final produced four of the top 10 most-watched non-football or Olympics events in 2012.

2012 is only one of two years in the last 10 that a Champions League match  has not been the most watched perennial event.  Chelsea’s victory over Bayern Munich on penalties in the final attracted 10.11 million viewers across ITV and Sky Sports.

Other “crown jewel” events attracted higher-than-average audiences in 2012.  Horse-racing’s Grand National attracted one of its highest audiences in the last 10 years (10.01 million) as did the FA Cup – its most watched match of the year was the final between Chelsea and Liverpool, drawing 9.483 million across ITV1 and ESPN.

The other major sporting story was Bradley Wiggins unprecedented Tour de France triumph, the first UK cyclist to win the race.  ITV switched coverage of the final stage from its less popular digital channel ITV4 to principal channel ITV1, drawing 2.146 million.

Pay-TV Top 10s
Football remains the dominant sport on pay-television in the UK, completing a clean sweep of the top 10 most-watched events in 2012.  The Monday night Premier League clash between title rivals Manchester United and Manchester City in April, which drew an average audience of 4.049 million (16-per-cent share) on the Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 1 HD channels is pay-television broadcaster BSkyB’s biggest ever audience for a television programme, replacing the previous top audience of 3.889 million for the Euro 2004 qualifier between Turkey and England in October 2003. 

The Premier League accounted for nine of the top 10 audiences on Sky Sports in 2012, eight of which were in the final months of the 2011-12 season, widely recognised as one of the most exciting seasons of all time.

Unsurprisingly, football is the most broadcast sport on Sky Sports, accounting for just over 14 per cent of its output.  The second most popular sport is motorsport, which accounted for almost 10 per cent, boosted by Sky’s coverage of Formula One.  Formula One has proved very successful for Sky, with the sport accounting for nine of the top 10 non-football programmes on pay-television in 2012, and seven of the top 10 non-football audiences ever on Sky Sports.

The German grand prix was the highest non-football audience, drawing an average audience of 1.672 million (17-per-cent share) on Sky Sports F1.  Only the remarkable final day of golf’s Ryder Cup, in which Team Europe pulled off one of the unlikeliest sporting comebacks, broke the stranglehold of Formula One, attracting 1.21 million, Sky’s highest ever golf audience. 

The other major golf story of 2012 – Rory McIlroy’s second major win at the US PGA Championship in South Carolina – drew just 162,000, a low audience for the final round of that event.  However, his win clashed with the Olympic closing ceremony.  Golf is the third most broadcast sport on Sky Sports, unsurprising given it broadcasts three of the four major tournaments and both the European and US tours.

The other notable UK success story covered by Sky Sports was Andy Murray’s victory over Novak Djokovic in the US Open tennis final – in which Murray became the first Brit to win a grand slam in 76 years – attracted 760,000 (5.7-per-cent share).  In 2008, Murray’s defeat in the final to Roger Federer drew 931,000 (9.6-per-cent share).  However that match finished not long after midnight, whereas his 2012 victory was completed after 2am UK time.

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