TV audiences up for the summer’s sporting stars

Australians tuned into more sport during the summer of 2023-24 on free-to-air television compared to the previous summer, with the consistent ratings explaining why networks splash billions of dollars on sports contracts, despite fractured audiences and declining advertising revenues.

This summer pointed to a healthy outlook for free-to-air broadcasting, but the picture was slightly more challenged for Australia’s largest pay TV operator, Foxtel, which announced a drop of 256,000 paying customers on Thursday.

Sport stars Aryna Sabalenka (left), Shamar Joseph and Jannik Sinner were popular on Australian television this summer.
Sport stars Aryna Sabalenka (left), Shamar Joseph and Jannik Sinner were popular on Australian television this summer.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

The majority of those who left Foxtel were dumping its sports streaming service, Kayo.

An average metro audience of 1.347 million watched Jannik Sinner’s win over Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open men’s final on Nine, the owner of this masthead. That was a slight rise on the 2023 figure of 1.322 million. This year’s “total TV” figure (which includes broadcast metro and national streaming) totalled 2.12 million.

While the figures jump around, since Nine took on the tennis contract in 2019, Rafael Nadal’s 2022 win delivered the largest television audience for the men’s final, with a metro audience of 1.6 million and total TV audience of 2.4 million.

Aryna Sabalenka’s 2024 win in the women’s final was watched by 878,000 metro viewers, compared to the 762,000 who watched the corresponding match in 2023. This year’s total TV figure was 1.33 million.

Historically, women’s finals are watched by fewer people than men’s finals. The exception was 2022, when Ash Barty’s Open win outranked any other match with 2.58 million metro viewers and a total TV audience of 3.88 million.

The figures quoted do not paint the full picture for broadcast coverage across the entire Australian Open, however offer a snapshot trend against previous years.

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Despite a largely one-sided summer of cricket, which included Australia’s 3-0 series win in the Tests against Pakistan and a 1-1 drawn series with the West Indies, four of the five Test matches delivered broadcaster Seven larger audiences than the previous summer. Shamar Joseph’s seven-wicket haul in Brisbane to help his team to a famous win made the final Test the most-watched cricket match of the summer, with an average daily audience of 534,000.

England’s 2021-22 Ashes tour of Australia was the most viewed summer in recent years. The 2021 Boxing Day Test, when Australia beat England before lunch on the third day, delivered an average daily audience of 804,000 despite the short duration.

Unlike the NRL and AFL, cricket – and to a lesser extent tennis – are susceptible to shorter match lengths and the impact of weather.

Early finishes have meant that out of a possible 285 sessions across the past four summers of Test cricket, 67 sessions have not been played. This figure equates to more than five entire matches that both Foxtel and Seven have missed out on broadcasting.

With an absence of top visiting sides, a weaker summer cycle hit pay TV company Foxtel, which broadcasts every moment of the summer’s cricket. The most recent quarter was particularly tough for Foxtel, with 230,000 people cancelling their subscriptions.

Foxtel said its average audience across Foxtel and Kayo for Test cricket was 306,000 while its average audience for Big Bash games was 235,000.

While crucial for broadcasters, the price to secure sports contracts continues to rise. In 2018, Nine agreed to a $60 million-a-year deal to broadcast the Australian Open exclusively from 2020 to 2024, with Seven then partnering with Foxtel to air the cricket over the five years in a deal worth $1.2 billion.

Cricket Australia’s deal sent one-day internationals behind a paywall for the first time, with the majority of Big Bash League games and all Test matches remaining on free to air. However, Seven did not acquire the digital rights.

Since then, both sporting bodies have signed long-term contract extensions, taking the deals to the end of the decade, while Seven reduced its outlay to Cricket Australia following a public stoush. By the end of 2024, Seven will also have the rights to broadcast both the AFL and cricket across its digital platform, 7Plus. The AFL signed a $4.5 billion, seven-year TV rights deal in 2022.

For free-to-air networks, the financial equation hinges on recouping investment through advertising. Australia’s key sports markets – cricket, tennis, AFL and NRL – all offer regular opportunities for ad breaks, not only promoting brands and products, but the chance to promote broadcasters’ programming, too.

Nine’s Married At First Sight regularly followed the tennis, and often dominates ratings charts for its entire run.

This year was no different. Married At First Sight has led the pack, followed by Seven’s Australian Idol, with Ten’s Australian Survivor in third place.

In 2011 – the final year of Ten’s then AFL contract – its free-to-air network share sat at 21.4 per cent. For the calendar year in 2023, the figure dropped to 15.6 per cent.

Comparatively, Foxtel’s (and Kayo’s) business model hinges mainly on subscription revenue. Paying customers get a wider range of content, and an entirely ad-free experience during play. The number of overall customers has steadily risen since Kayo’s launch in 2019, with a regular cycle of churn established, and many have returned for the winter codes.

The summer’s exodus far outranked the same quarter in the two previous years (133,000 in 2023 and 50,000 in 2022), while Foxtel’s paying broadcast subscribers also continue to drop at 45,000 per quarter.

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Source: Thanks smh.com