You may have seen the headlines about the Premier League’s new domestic “record TV deal” being worth £6.7 billion ($8.4bn) for the 2025-2029 cycle, and your eyes might have glazed over as they often do around big numbers.
You may have thought, “OK, it’s the most successful soccer league in the world, they’re making billions, no wonder they’re raking it in. Everything’s fine and dandy.”
Except, it’s not.
This new “record” TV deal confirms a trend that’s been going on for a while: the value of media rights, both in real terms and as a percentage of club revenue, are diminishing. And while the Premier League is better prepared than most of its peers, at some point there will necessarily need to be a reset because there are only so many ways you can make money.
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So, to what extent is the new TV deal not a “record,” in meaningful terms? Well, very much. For starters, it’s a four-year deal, not the usual three years, so on a seasonal basis it works out to £1.675bn a year, less than the £1.713bn a year in the 2015 agreement that covered the 2016-2019 seasons. Factor in inflation, with the cost of living some 30% higher today than in 2015, and this deal is about one third less valuable than that one, which was the highest ever. (The 2019-22 deal, which was rolled into 2022-2025 and meant the same rights holders held onto their packages, already represented a decline prior to last month’s announcement.)
Oh, and then there’s the fact that this deal covers 99 games more than the 2016-19 agreement. Consider inflation and, on a per-game basis, the value of each individual game has gone down 50%.
Why, then, is all this happening?
It’s not because there’s some underlying shift in the popularity or cultural relevance of the league: the stadiums are still full, the commercial deals keep rolling, interest remains high. In fact, the Premier League remains far and away the most successful and popular football league in the world. And, incidentally, the decline in the value of media rights is actually affecting all of Europe’s top leagues; in fact, it’s worse elsewhere. England’s new deal represents a 4% rise over the previous contract (over both 2019-2022 and the 2022-2025 rollover), LaLiga was up 1%, the Bundesliga was flat, Serie A was down 3% and the Ligue 1 action was halted because nobody met the minimum price. (Instead, they’ll try to hammer out a deal via individual negotiations.)
As I see it, it’s mainly the fact that broadcasters made some very big bets on the growth of football and overpaid in previous decades, either because they got their numbers wrong or because they were trying to gain market share. They’re now far more cautious and value conscious than before.
The fact is, these are mature markets: it’s not as if folks are unaware of this thing called “football” that they can pay to watch on subscription TV. If they don’t subscribe, it’s either because they’re watching illegal streams; because they’re content with attending games in person and watching highlights on social media and free TV; because they can’t afford it; or because they just don’t like the game.
What does this mean for the Premier League? Well, their domestic deal is still much bigger than those of the other Big Five European leagues, and their international rights revenues leave the others in the dust. (However, there are some questions there, too: How much longer will the owners of beIN Sports, their largest partner, continue to chuck money at them? And will their second-biggest partner, Viaplay, stay solvent?). In terms of maintaining the TV revenue gap with the rest of the competition, it’s unlikely anyone will catch up soon, mainly because they face the exact same challenges.
Maybe things will change. Maybe the big tech giants — the likes of Apple, Meta, Amazon and Google, some of whom have already dipped their toe into these waters, like Apple with MLS and some Premier League games showing on Prime — will go all-in and drive up the price at the next auction, but we’ve been hearing this for the past 10 years and none of them have done so.
Maybe someone will figure out how to monetize live games, like Walmart is trying to do with “Add to Heart?” Can you picture it? Erling Haaland scores a late winner, rips off his headband and you can click to purchase one exactly like it for $19.95 … or the camera pans to Jose Mourinho pointing to his watch, a link pops up, and that very timepiece is yours for the low, low price of $2,500.
Maybe, since most of us don’t ever actually watch live TV other than sports, breaking news and the odd extravaganza like an awards show, we’ll revert to some sort of free TV, ad-supported setup? (Heck, it works pretty well for the NFL.)
Until any of that happens, however, the current model for TV rights seems pretty much tapped out. And that matters because, fundamentally, most clubs only support themselves three ways: broadcasting (including prize money, which is directly linked to broadcasting), matchday revenue and commercial activities, like sponsorship and merchandising.
We’ve covered broadcasting. Matchday revenue can only grow so much. There’s only so much you can charge for tickets, there’s a limit to how big a stadium you can build — you can’t really go above 100,000 capacity, or you’ll have a ton of crappy seats that nobody wants to pay for — and while corporate hospitality and luxury boxes can be nice little earners, there’s a finite of very rich clients to whom you can sell. In any case, most Premier League clubs have extracted as much as they can out of their stadiums. (It’s a slightly different story in Spain or Italy, where the likes of Real Madrid, Inter, AC Milan, Barcelona and Roma have all either recently renovated their grounds, plan to do so in the near future or are looking to build new stadiums.)
That leaves commercial revenue and here, clubs are under a ton of pressure. It may explain why, unlike in the past, instead of mainstream brands, we now often see a bunch of sponsors — think crypto brands, B2B operators and bookmakers, often with a bunch of numbers in their name, like bots on social media — most of us hadn’t heard of until recently, if at all. Again, maybe somebody will get really creative, really quickly and things will spike exponentially, but if you’re relying on brands willing to roll the dice to gain market share or reputation before they burn through the cash, it’s not the most stable relationship.
Do Europe’s top leagues realize this? You’d hope so. Some, like the Premier League and Bundesliga, are probably more future-proofed than others. But you don’t have to be an accountant to realize that if revenue grows more slowly than costs, you’re going to run into a problem, and salaries make up anywhere from 60% to 90% — sometimes more — at the vast majority of clubs.
At some point, unless they find new revenue streams, wages will have to stop growing or even go down, making the Premier League’s TV deal a canary in the coal mine. Will these warnings be heeded before it’s too late?