The FA Cup final was once described as the biggest game of the season, yet its fall from grace owes much to the globalisation of the sport, if not the waning importance of free-to-air television.
A study by this blog has found that while the showpiece event has benefited from the BBC’s exposure, ratings over the last decade have fluctuated. Last season’s final, which saw Manchester City pick Watford apart in the space of 30 minutes, was watched by a peak audience of 7.4 million viewers, down 16% on 2018 and the 10.1 million that witnessed Arsenal retain the cup against Aston Villa in 2015.
The 2019 final, which also was broadcast on BT Sport, brought about the BBC’s lowest numbers since they reclaimed rights to the competition from the 2014-15 season. In the last ten years, you would have to go back to 2010 for poorer numbers. Chelsea’s victory against Portsmouth only managed a 6.5 million peak and a viewing share of 34.60% on ITV. Viewing shares hit rock bottom in 2013; Wigan’s unexpected triumph over Manchester City did enjoy a respectable peak of 9.4 million watchers, yet less than one in three people (31.30%) saw the coverage.
Moving the FA Cup to the BBC has undoubtedly reinvigorated interest. It is a permanent fixture on FTA; indeed, since 2015 when ITV lost rights to the Champions League, the FA Cup has been the only football competition to remain on the traditional broadcasters. There is a aura of romanticism attached to the FA Cup, and the decision to award ITV rights in the near future to make it FTA exclusive has gone down well.
It must be stressed that although last year’s final garnered respectable numbers, it was a sharp drop on previous years. The apathy, best summarised by Gary Lineker’s struggle to say anything meaningful during the half-time analysis, could be attributed to a number of things. The weather was nice. There were other events going on. Manchester City were a class above and the contest made for dull TV (which goes against research in this article). The kick-off time, which has moved from its traditional 3pm to benefit from a worldwide audience, has made things inconvenient. Most likely and perhaps telling was that neither Manchester United, Liverpool nor Arsenal — three clubs that traditionally draw the biggest audiences, had no part to play, exiting in the early rounds. Two of United’s games — Arsenal in the fourth, and Chelsea in the fifth round — were the most watched matches of the season, and the latter game pulled in a peak of 8 million on a Monday night.
Interestingly, the 2019 final’s peak was 1.4 million higher than the audience which watched Liverpool’s Champions League victory on BT Sport in June. Arguably that figure would have been higher had BT subleased the coverage onto ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5. Telling too that ITV that night decided against airing its Britain’s Got Talent Final, instead pushing it back to the the next day.
There is appetite for the game from a global perspective, but the findings hint a trend most have long suspected: in Britain, the modern viewer is no longer dependent on watching football on linear TV, and is keen to use different platforms. Although this season the Premier League was packed with high drama, requiring a final-day showdown and the Champions League was contested by two English clubs, interest was not stratospheric. The accessibility of streaming services and debate on social media has softened and somewhat masked the importance of free-to-air broadcasters, as they have loosened their grip on rights.
Disclaimer: Of course, there are many limitations to this study, one being it not take into consideration is the early rounds of the FA Cup, where drama comes alive. The thinking here is the final serves as an indicator of how the season has panned out and can be seen as an isolated event.