Leeds United: Whites the unwitting pawns in TV ratings war

Leeds United's TV statistics for the 2013-14 season.
Leeds United's TV statistics for the 2013-14 season.
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Leeds United’s frequent presence on television is a source of controversy, but huge viewing figures for their live games help explain why they are so popular with Sky Sports. Amitai Winehouse reports.

Fans of Leeds United and owner Massimo Cellino have one thing in common – they dislike the frequency with which the Elland Road club are shown live on Sky Sports.

The club’s presence on television has also become something of a running joke with fans from other clubs.

It has also had an adverse impact on Leeds supporters and the club.

They will have been shown on television 10 times between August and January this season. That figure is matched by just Wolverhampton Wanderers and Derby County.

This perceived ‘over-exposure’ is clearly unfair particularly on season ticket-holders.

Last month, Leeds owner Cellino said the frequent reshuffles had put “the future of our club at stake.”

He explained that they affect Leeds’ “revenue to a level where the club is losing money with each televised home game, as Sky’s compensation payments are not enough to cover the losses in ticketing, retail and catering.”

Cellino sought to protest against the movement of games by implementing a cap on away tickets, limiting them to 2,000, a decision he reversed after only a few days.

Figures obtained by the Yorkshire Evening Post reveal that the Whites averaged over 150,000 more viewers on Sky Sports than the rest of the Championship on a Saturday between February 2013 and February 2014, the latest data available.

It is that sustained drawing power that explains why Leeds are so regularly shown, despite a lack of any real success on the pitch over the last few seasons.

With Sky Sports undergoing a battle with BT Sport, launched in August 2013, for supremacy of the airwaves, Leeds are one of the more guaranteed hits from the Football League package that the channel can turn to.

Having lost the rights to the 12.45pm Saturday Premier League kick-off for the start of the 2013-14 season, Sky Sports repositioned the regular broadcast of the Championship to come up against their television rival at 12.30pm, moving from 5.30pm on a Saturday evening.

One industry insider suggested that Sky Sports’ constant selection of Leeds games for that slot is a strategic move, designed to damage BT Sport’s ratings for their Premier League broadcasts.

However, another pointed out that Sky Sports have only two regular broadcast slots for Championship games – Saturday lunchtime and Friday evening – and that the scheduling was simply a result of that.

Comparisons of Leeds’ popularity in those other regular slots are difficult, as Leeds have been broadcast only once on a Friday night since the start of the 2013-14 season, a period of two-and-a-half years. That was the game against Rotherham United last season.

This season, Leeds have already been shown on Saturday at 12.30pm four times – the highest number in the division.

It makes sense when the figures are looked at closely, with Leeds comfortably the most popular side in the Championship, both in terms of average viewers throughout any given broadcast of a game and the reach of a broadcast.

That is the number of people who have tuned in for at least three minutes of a programme.

The six games between February 2013 and February 2014 involving United that were broadcast on a Saturday at 12.30pm averaged 427,000 viewers.

That symbolises Leeds’ popularity, with the 21 games from this period not involving Leeds averaging 275,000 viewers. That means games involving Leeds draw 152,000 more viewers, on average, than games from the division featuring other sides.

Leeds also had the highest rating in the slot during the period explored for the game against Sheffield Wednesday on August 17, 2013.

The match had an average of 646,000 viewers throughout the broadcast.

A huge 1,529,000 people watched at least three minutes of the game, which finished 1-1.

While the pull of a Yorkshire derby clearly aided the game’s viewing figures, two other games between teams from the county struggled to match. Wednesday’s games against Huddersfield Town and Barnsley drew 178,000 and 272,000 viewers, respectively.

The most popular broadcast not featuring Leeds and shown at 12.30pm on a Saturday over the period was the match between QPR and Burnley on February 1, 2014.

The two sides were challenging for promotion from the Championship at that point, both clubs ultimately achieving it at the end of the campaign.

Drawing in an average of 423,000 viewers over the course of the programme, this fixture still had 5,000 fewer viewers than Leeds’ average for the period explored.

The figures support Cellino’s theory that Leeds’ popularity on television could be seen as a hindrance to the club staging their games at 3pm on Saturday, regarded as the traditional time for football in the United Kingdom.

Games being moved for broadcast have become a controversial subject in recent weeks, with FC United of Manchester’s attempted stand against the Football Association showing how powerless clubs are.

The club refused to move their FA Cup first-round tie against Chesterfield for broadcast, but the FA insisted on it, and the club, therefore, had to hold it on Monday evening despite objections from fans.

A spokesperson for Leeds United said: “We are not surprised to hear about the drawing power of the club.

“Our fans demonstrate their incredible support every game, travelling up and down the country to follow their team.

“The club are committed to improving the experience of a match-day for our supporters and are looking to improve the current situation with regards to the frequency of games moved for television coverage.”

Marco Silvestri (right) at Leeds United's training base in Austria on Tuesday.

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