Doubts cast over FA Cup season opener

FA Cup TV rating figures took a tumble last weekend, sparking worries that English football’s governing body the Football Association may be undoing the good work that many believe the BBC’s coverage did by helping to revitalise the competition.

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The FA’s new television partners, ITV and Setanta, attracted below-average audiences for live televised third round matches, according to leading TV sports analysts TV Sports Markets.

Average audiences for the matches shown by ITV were down 16 per cent on the average recorded by the BBC for third round ties shown during its four-year tenure of the rights between 2005 to 2008. Audiences for matches on Setanta were considerably lower than those attracted by Sky Sports. Earlier rounds broadcast by both ITV and Setanta have also drawn fewer viewers than those in previous years.

The FA will have expected audiences to be lower on ITV: in general, events on ITV attract lower audiences than the BBC. And satellite audiences were also due to be lower given Setanta is not as well established as Sky Sports.

The FA does though have the rather nice sweetner that it is bringing in 42 per cent more in TV revenue by selling the rights to ITV and Setanta – just over £30 million more per year.

FA sponsors, particularly lead partner E.ON, may also be willing to swallow the bitter pill of losing eyeballs given that they will get more exposure on a commercial channel, which doesn’t have advertising restrictions imposed on it like the BBC.

The winner of course is ITV. ITV’s average audience for the tie of the round – Preston-Liverpool – was 5.5 million (25.6 per cent audience share) on Saturday evening, kicking off its Saturday night schedule. However, compared to the BBC’s ratings, these figures look a little weak. In 2007, the BBC showed Luton-Liverpool in a similar timeslot drew 6.739 million.

ITV will be expecting a blockbuster audience for the 4th round tie between Manchester United and Tottenham, a match the BBC would have brought in seven million plus for.

ITV chose to look over the tie of the round – Liverpool-Everton – and Setanta will now be licking its lips as it will show two Merseyside derbies in a week (the first of which is a Premier League match), acting as a strong subscriber driver for the channel. Setanta’s top third round match – Southampton-Manchester United – attracted 815,000, a good audience for the channel but well below Sky Sports’ average.

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