Europe’s top football clubs are limbering up for another budget-busting summer transfer frenzy. But, privately at least, many will be wondering how long they can keep the ball rolling on mega deals that have been fuelled by the ever-increasing television revenues of recent years.

UK broadcasters look like they have scored spectacular own goals when spending billions on expensive football rights. Average viewers for UK games unexpectedly dropped sharply this season — down some 14 per cent on Sky, which shows the most matches. The decision to postpone the auction of Italian football rights this week was a further sign that broadcasters’ appetites are not limitless, with Mediaset saying it would rethink its bidding strategy in January.

The market for football rights appears to be peaking — and may already have done so in the UK. BT has other important things to do with its cash such as deal with a gawping pension deficit and the ballooning cost of an accounting scandal. Meanwhile, Sky, in the midst of a contentious potential takeover by 21st Century Fox, could also tighten its belt.

Louis Capital made the bear case starkly. The broker said that BT spending £2bn for football over three years implied a break-even of £34.30 per month per subscriber “which will never be achieved”, adding that the company’s customer growth in TV is coming to a halt.

A dwindling list of bidders will worry sports bosses. The tech groups muscling their way into broadcasting — Netflix and Amazon in particular — have so far shown little interest in football rights. Instead, it is the linear TV incumbents that have propped up the sport, like old friends holding each other up at the bar.

Football bosses are trying to come up with new wheezes to keep viewers. There is talk of Premier League night games on a Saturday — aimed more at TV viewers than the fans schlepping around the UK. This season’s Champions League final had the sort of fanfare more readily associated with the Super Bowl. But BT also made the game available for free on YouTube in the UK. This is no longer a premium product in spite of commanding premium supply prices. BT boosted the cost of the rights by bidding up the auction but devalued their worth.

Broadcasters say that more people are watching on their streaming services but this is unlikely to be enough to offset losses on linear TV for some time. Web-based sports sold on daily or monthly “passes” also mean a lower average revenue per user than the traditional multi-game, season-long packages that still dominate.

Greater innovation and flexibility is needed to keep younger generations interested. Many cannot afford to go to games or take subscriptions — and plenty access sport for free via pirated streams. The bigger worry is that live football is no longer as big a draw. New ideas are easy to think up, such as season passes to watch a team. The music industry has overcome similar disruption with streaming. But league bosses will be wary of giving clubs control of their TV rights if they stop seeing growth.

The drop in viewing is only one season in one country. And for European broadcasters, football brings other advantages: it helps sell broadband packages or lends them kudos. But pockets are not bottomless — and investors will want to curtail costs if audience figures keep falling.

dan.thomas@ft.com



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