The Viewing Report

2018: A year of televisual sporting brilliance by Kelly Cates

21 May 2019

5th Test, England v. India © Sky Sports / Getty Images

A certain Liverpool manager is famously quoted as saying that while “some people believe football is a matter of life and death… it is much, much more important than that.” Many people would no doubt agree. The plethora of amazing sporting events that 2018 gave us unquestionably caused a huge range of emotions for the viewing public.

The Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games from South Korea, Commonwealth Games from Australia, Football World Cup from Russia and Ryder Cup from Paris were among the special events we were able to enjoy on top of the feast of fantastic sport we are served every year. Each of these events provided wonderfully rich storylines for TV journalists to capture, comment on or simply marvel at alongside the viewing public.

The viewing figures back up the theory that sport is extremely important to the nation. In 2018, almost every man, woman and child watched a sporting broadcast – 97.1% of the UK population in fact. Virtually all of those watched a live sporting broadcast. In a world of ever-expanding choice, where we are told that ‘old’ forms of entertainment are being replaced by new ones, it seems that the great British public are still firmly in love with watching sport – whether it be in the living room on the TV set or following via apps such as Sky Go on PCs, tablets and smartphones.

Viewing away from the TV set demonstrates the depth of commitment from fans. We saw the audience for the Friday morning fourballs at the Ryder Cup rise by 16%, while post-race coverage of the Mexican Grand Prix increased its audience by 18%. Making sure fans can get access to content when, where and how they want is crucial.

As a broadcaster working for Sky Sports and BBC Radio 5 Live, you have to have a keen interest in audience figures; who is watching what and how that changes. At Sky, for instance, we saw strong figures for our Premier League coverage in 2018. Liverpool’s dramatic victory over Man City back at the beginning of 2018 was Sky’s most watched Premier League game of the year, with an average audience of more than 2.2 million. In fact, there were 44 live games that were viewed by more than a million people across Sky and BT Sport broadcasts. In 2009, that figure was only reached by 40 games.

The enduring popularity of the Premier League may not be surprising, but there were a number of other sporting moments that attracted large audiences throughout 2018. 7.8m people watched some aspect of cricket coverage on Sky Sports Main Event or Sky Sports Cricket, for instance.

Purists will be pleased to see that nine of the ten most-watched cricket broadcasts were from the closely-fought Test series between England and India. Alastair Cook, now Sir Alastair, announcing his retirement and scoring 147 in his final innings was a wonderful story that you couldn’t help but be moved by. As Steve James wrote in The Times: “It was emotional. Tears were shed. It was like being transported momentarily into another world.” Live sport delivers such spectacular moments time and again.

The viewing figures are impressive, but to return to Bill Shankly’s quote for a moment, I do believe that while sport, in itself, might not be a matter of life and death, it can certainly be a forum for debate about wider issues happening in our lives. There are numerous examples from sporting history, from the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the US national anthem in 2016. Closer to home, Raheem Sterling has spoken out about the treatment that black footballers receive in the media.

The sporting events that we choose to broadcast are important. In this respect, it has been wonderful to see increased coverage of women’s sport from broadcasters and more women in front of the camera. Alex Scott has been a brilliant addition to the Sky Sports Premier League team. Alex played 140 times for England and represented Team GB at the Olympics in 2012 – her knowledge of the game is phenomenal and can only serve to enhance our coverage.

In 2018 Sky covered the Netball Superleague, the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, all five women’s golf majors and more. In 2019 Sky will continue its commitment to covering women’s sport including the Ashes, Six Nations, Netball World Cup and Solheim Cup among others. We know that many other broadcasters also play a big role in covering women’s sport.

Netball Superleague © Sky Sports / Getty Images

Women’s sport is getting closer to realising that virtuous circle of improving performance leading to increased media coverage and increased investment, creating increased participation and circling back to improving performance. Having female sports presenters and pundits is an important part of this – I want girls and young women who see me or Alex on TV to know that this world can be for them too.

Importantly, viewers want to watch. In April, more than 1.5m watched England and Wales play out a 0-0 draw as part of qualification for the Women’s World Cup in 2019. England and Scotland have qualified for the tournament that will be held in France in June this year. I for one will be watching the games, and the viewing figures that accompany them. If the Lionesses can go further than Gareth Southgate’s team did in 2018, I look forward to seeing some big numbers.

Kelly Cates, sports broadcaster, Sky Sports and BBC Radio 5 Live