The Premier League is the world’s richest domestic soccer league. It dominates the sporting agenda in the UK and is an increasingly powerful force globally. Few properties can match its commercial power, profile, and influence.
English soccer’s top flight owes its very existence to broadcasting and exponential growth in television income has powered its ascent to the top of the soccer world. Virtually every domestic rights cycle has delivered an uplift in coverage and revenues, while international broadcast deals and digital channels have cultivated a global fanbase.
The Premier League is a cultural phenomenon founded on media and technology.
Manchester City are the defending Premier League champions (Image credit: Getty Images)
A digital history
English soccer’s decades-long suspicion of live television ended in the 1980s when the BBC and ITV started showing matches from the Football League’s first division. But the country’s biggest clubs, many of whom had floated on the stock market, believed a breakaway top flight would deliver greater revenues and formed the Premier League in 1992.
The rights were sold to another then-upstart in the form of Sky Sports, which was desperate for exclusive content to drive adoption of its satellite television service. Sky matched its investment with innovation in marketing, presentation and technology, introducing Monday night matches, pioneering interactive television, and even introducing the permanent digital on-screen scoreboard graphic to the world.
The gamble paid off handsomely for both sides. The booming popularity of the league meant each new television deal was more lucrative than the last, helped by an expansion in inventory and changes to European competition law attracting new entrants, driving revenues for the Premier League. Setanta and ESPN failed to make the economics work, but BT Sport (now TNT Sports) has held rights for a decade.
Domestic TV rights
The Premier League sells its rights collectively, rather than individually. Half of the money is handed out equally, with the remainder distributed according to final league position and the number of times teams are chosen for live broadcasts. Although this means more successful and popular teams receive more cash, it has helped maintain some degree of financial parity.
Uniquely, not all matches are available for domestic coverage. Just 210 of 380 fixtures are broadcast, with no matches shown at 3pm due to a blackout designed to protect attendances. However, restricting supply has helped maintain and grow the value of the Premier League’s deals.
Apart from a three-year partnership with ITV between 2001 and 2004, the BBC’s Match of the Day has been the home of free-to-air (FTA) highlights, while the league has had mixed success with its digital clips. Several mobile operators secured deals for 3G videos in the 2000s, while others have struggled to monetise them effectively. Sky Sports now holds these rights to complement its live coverage, distributing them on its own channels and on YouTube.
International TV rights
The Premier League is now broadcast in more than 800 million homes in 188 countries through more than 90 broadcasters. Unlike domestic viewers, international audiences can watch every single match live.
International broadcast revenue now exceeds the value of domestic deals, a situation largely driven by the league’s expanding popularity in the US. This revenue is distributed equally between all 20 teams, although the biggest clubs are pushing for a greater share, arguing that their global profile is responsible for the rising value of these contracts.
The Premier League’s popularity affords it the luxury of being a ‘fast follower’. While Spain’s LaLiga and the Bundesliga in Germany have established dedicated digital units to grow their brands and create innovations that will drive revenues, the Premier League has largely left such activities to its media partners and individual clubs.
Centralised initiatives have focused mostly on fan engagement and sponsorship. The Premier League’s hugely successful official fantasy game went live in the early 2000s and a search for an inaugural official technology partner back in 2010 was largely a marketing arrangement that saw EA Sports’ brand appear alongside statistics graphics during broadcasts.
However, the league is becoming more active, appointing Oracle as its official cloud partner to modernise its back end and fan-facing operations. It has also recruited Alexandra Willis from the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) as director of digital media and audience development to help build out its direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategy.
Industry estimates say the Premier League will bring in more than UK£10 billion (US$12.1 billion) in media rights revenue during its ongoing 2022 to 2025 sales cycle.
Domestically, the Premier League is in the second year of its current rights deals with Sky Sports, TNT Sports and Amazon Prime, which are worth a combined UK£4.8 billion. Sky is the senior partner with 128 live matches per season, including all Saturday tea-time and evening fixtures, Sunday afternoon matches, and all Monday and Friday night games. TNT Sports has 52 matches, mostly at Saturday lunchtime and midweek.
Amazon Prime has 20 live matches a season comprising two complete rounds of games. Its UK£30 million-a-season deal is heavily discounted, with the league hoping the tech giant’s experience will entice other streaming services in the future. The BBC currently pays UK£71million a year for the FTA highlights.
Most international partners take feeds from Premier League Productions (PLP), established with agency IMG, which produces and distributes live matches and magazine programming. It also operates the Premier League Content Service, which is broadcast by some of the league’s partners as a full 24/7 channel.
PLP’s output includes studio-based content, fan-focused agenda shows, magazine programming, classic matches, and other long-form storytelling. PLP also provides satellite distribution and onsite services for all matches and programming, as well as connectivity to all 20 Premier League grounds and training facilities via IMG Studios.
NBC is the league’s most important overseas partner. It first signed up back in 2013 and now pays US$2.7 billion over six years for the rights to show all matches in the US. Its coverage has played a significant role in increasing the league’s popularity stateside by offering a long-term home for the rights and giving prominence to blue riband fixtures across its linear and digital portfolio. Most matches are streamed on the Peacock direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform, with selected fixtures broadcast on the flagship NBC network and on the USA cable channel.
Other major international partners include Canal+ in France, Sky Sport in Germany, DAZN in Spain, and BeIN Sports in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). English top-flight soccer has a long tradition of television coverage in Scandinavia, where the current rights owner is Viaplay.
The Tech Stack
Fan engagement remains the most important driver of the Premier League’s tech strategy. Its most substantial technology deal is with Oracle, which signed up as official cloud partner in 2021. The partnership has seen the tech giant’s infrastructure absorb huge quantities of the Premier League’s data assets, including historical match data and real-time information supplied by the league’s official data partners, such as player tracking, which is collected via computer vision techniques.
Once this data is in the cloud, Oracle’s machine learning models create various insights that are distributed via the league’s broadcast and digital channels. Metrics include ‘average formation’, ‘live win probability’ and ‘momentum tracker’, the latter of which measures the likelihood of the team in possession scoring a goal in the next five minutes. The aim is to give viewers a deeper understanding of what’s happening on the pitch, driving engagement and social media followers.
The league has also migrated its entire historical video archive to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI), a move which is dsigned to reduce costs, drive efficiency and unlock a range of new capabilities for the league’s broadcasting operations. The archive comprises every single match, along with pre and post-match interviews, and is used by the league itself, its broadcast and commercial partners, documentary makers, advertisers, and other licensees.
Oracle's win probability metric is inserted into live broadcasts to drive engagement (Image credit: Oracle)
On the fan-facing side, Sony’s Pulselive has worked across the league’s digital channels since 2015, relaunching its official website and consolidating multiple functions, including official Fantasy Premier League, into a single native mobile application complete with live data, videos and localised content.
Gaming is also becoming an important fan engagement channel in its own right and while no longer holding the designation of official technology partner, EA Sports remains a key partner for the league. The publisher signed a six-year extension to its deal for a reported UK£500 million earlier in 2023, allowing it to continue using the league’s intellectual property in its video games. Meanwhile, Sorare is now the official blockchain fantasy sports licence holder, agreeing a four-year deal in what is the league’s most significant foray into Web 3.0 to date.
Genius Sports is the official low-latency data partner of the Premier League, thanks to a wider partnership agreed with Football DataCo in 2019. It collects data from every single player in every single match to power new statistics and visualisations and betting markets for bookmaker partners.
The firm is now also using Skeletal tracking computer vision technology that powers semi-automated offside technology (SAOT) to collect positional data that can digitally recreate an entire pitch. These digital recreations can unlock a range of content and commercial possibilities, including new second screen experiences, virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) applications, and even entire metaverse environments that put players at the heart of the action.
On the pitch, Sony’s Hawk-Eye system has been used to power Goal Line Technology (GLT) since the 2013/14 season, while video assistant referee (VAR) technology has been present since the 2019/20 campaign, an operation based out of IMG’s studios in Stockley Park. Referees are equipped with smart watches manufactured by official timekeeper Hublot, with a custom application informing them when the ball has crossed the line.
What to watch out for in 2023/24
The Premier League’s expanding interest in technological innovation has seen it join the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator, which provides resources and opportunities to early-stage sports technology startups. A new cohort of startups will be admitted next year, giving the league and its two most important broadcast partners, Comcast-owned NBC and Sky Sports, the ability to identify and assist technologies that could benefit English soccer’s top flight in the future.
Several new innovations were tested during the Premier League Summer Series – the first ever centralised tour of the US. This included the league’s first ever augmented reality (AR) experience, developed by Doppelgänger, which sought to engage fans and raise the profile of all 20 clubs keen to build their profile across the Atlantic.
The centralised nature of the tour also gave the Premier League more control over the broadcast of the games, allowing it to trial things that have never been used before in the English game. Referees were equipped with wearable cameras, giving a unique perspective on goals and other incidents, while players have even been fitted with wearable microphones for unprecedented insight into what happens on the pitch – and what players are really saying to the officials.
Whether any of these innovations find their way into a regular season matchup in the future remains to be seen, but both the league’s major domestic broadcast partners are shaking up their programming this season.
BT Sport is now TNT Sports and will inherit the former’s package of 52 live Saturday and midweek matches. The BT Sport application is set to be shut down before the end of the year, with Discovery+ the new streaming home for live matches. Some features will transition to the new app, but several will not make the move.
Monday Night Football has been at the forefront of Sky Sports' broadcast innovation (Image credit: Sky)
Sky Sports is refreshing its programming slate with a new lead commentator in the form of Peter Drury and a new host for the Soccer Saturday live reporting show, with Simon Thomas replacing the long-serving Jeff Stelling in the presenter’s chair, while Soccer AM is ending its run after nearly 30 years on Saturday mornings. Sky Sports is also shaking up its presentation with a new studio for the popular Monday Night Football programme, using augmented reality (AR) features to better explain tactical trends and analysis to viewers.
It had been thought that SAOT would make its debut this season, having been tested in European competition, but the Premier League has opted not to introduce it. It will, however, introduce four additional VAR cameras to improve decision making.
The biggest thing to watch will be away from the pitch. Although the Premier League is only in the second year of its domestic broadcast contract, it’s already turning its attention to the next cycle, with a tender expected in October. It is understood the league plans to increase the number of televised matches from 200 to 270 in a bid to attract larger bids from existing partners and tempt streamers like DAZN, Disney, and Apple to enter the fray.
There will reportedly be fewer packages available, with each bundle containing more matches. Amazon’s package of 20 matches, or two full rounds of fixtures, will not be available. This will mean Amazon will have to pay more to keep its foot in the door.
One thing that is certain is that the 3pm blackout will be retained and there is little chance of the Premier League going full direct-to-consumer (DTC) anytime soon – its existing business model is just too successful and risk free.
'We're certainly building from a position of strength' - PL director of digital media and audience development @alex_willis on the evolution of #FPL for fan engagement.#SPLive23 #SportsBiz pic.twitter.com/uFiMdiWpTA— SportsPro (@SportsPro) April 26, 2023
Alexandra Willis, Director of Digital Media and Audience Development, Premier League
“Fandom is much more complicated than it was years ago. Technology enables us to meet [different fan expectations].
“Our role as a league and as a competition is to support our media partners in maximising the value of their rights with products such as such as Fantasy Premier League which can enable those different methods and mechanics of engagement. [These products] also help build anticipation ahead of a match weekend and encourage fans to pay attention to all matches [not just ones involving their favourite team].
“While the Premier League is obviously proudly staged here, in the UK, the global reach of Fantasy Premier League is something that we think is really interesting. Often Fantasy Premier League is the first touchpoint for a fan to engage with us directly and then go on to be interested in our matchday live experience, watch video content or, most importantly, develop an affinity with a particular club. We’re able to direct them and support them in that journey as they develop and broaden their fandom.
“Our return on investment is our ability to bring people into our ecosystem and then bring them into the club ecosystems.”
This is the first instalment of a new series of special reports into the technology and media strategies of some of the biggest properties in world sport. Future editions of The Tech Stack will be available exclusively to SportsPro+ subscribers. You can find out more about SportsPro+ and how to subscribe here.