A new study has detailed the gulf between the two biggest clubs in English football and the rest of the top-flight, including a clear disparity between their top six rivals.
Students at the Liverpool University’s Centre for Sports Business conducted their research by focusing on 790 televised Premier League matches which took place between 2013 and 2019.
Their report, titled Armchair Fans: Modelling Audience Size For Televised Football Matches, determined that supporters are naturally more inclined to tune in to a fixture when there is something riding on it.
Potential outcomes such as Champions League qualification or an impact on relegation battles or the title race tend to attract the biggest audiences.
The time and date of a fixture can also play a part, while the broadcaster for each contest was also taken into account, given Sky Sports’ larger number of subscribers compared to rivals BT.
And in a more scrutinised look at each club, United and Liverpool came up trumps.
In fact, those two are the only teams who continue to draw in a similar level of viewers even when they are playing a run-of-the-mill match which has little bearing on their overall success.
The study was centred around Bournemouth who, with a stadium capacity of just over 11,000, have a much smaller fanbase than many of the other top-flight clubs.
And the results show the huge gap between the relegated south coast club and those at the top of the Premier League table.
“If either Liverpool or Manchester United were substituted for AFC Bournemouth in a televised match, the ‘brand effect’ alone would be predicted to raise audience size by about 75 per cent,” the authors told the Independent .
Tottenham and Man City then follow after that but are the least watched of the recognised ‘Big Six’.
The study period was also during a time when both Liverpool and United were largely performing worse than their rivals in terms of form.
One of the authors, Ian McHale, put it bluntly: “Liverpool and United were not clever during the time span of the study but still attracted enormous audiences.
“Liverpool are likely to be doing even better now. They will measure higher in player quality, they have the brand factor and the match significance scores will have increased. City have nowhere near the same reach.”
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But while the big clubs continue to financially out-muscle and out-perform the chasing pack, it appears there is no appetite for change amongst viewers.
“As long as there are four Champions League places, a top six or seven vying for those positions makes it interesting. It does not seem to matter if the teams below this are cut adrift,” McHale added.
“At the bottom you need at least four sides fighting relegation. After that, there seems to be little interest in parity. People don’t want Liverpool and United to be handicapped and become like Crystal Palace and West Ham.”