Has the EFL’s iFollow Service Been Successful?
Ever since the Premier League clubs split from the EFL, it’s been a struggle for the sides in the second, third, and fourth-tiers to manage their financial sustainability. In the 2016-17 season, 19 of the 24 clubs in the Championship experienced losses, and in 2019, Bury FC collapsed and was expelled from the EFL.
The average turnover of a Premier League Club is now more than £100 million above the clubs in the EFL. This will make it harder for freshly promoted clubs to compete with the titans at the top of the Premier League as the top teams can simply outspend the smaller sides.
With changes to the Premier League’s distribution of international TV rights revenue from the 2019-20 season, the smaller clubs and the teams in the EFL that receive parachute and solidarity payments will see no benefit from the growing demand for Premier League games abroad.
Going it Alone
Many lower-tier clubs are finding innovative ways to bring in more revenue. For example, they have large portfolios of sponsors, with the sports betting industry spending a lot with football clubs at all levels. This is down to the huge level of competition in the market, with many also offering generous free bet promotions to attract new customers.
Stadium sharing, entertainment, and hospitality are all other revenue streams that clubs have been using to cover the ever-increasing costs of running a football club.
Another source of income that the EFL has created is its iFollow streaming service. Launched in 2017, the iFollow Over The Top (OTT) service was available only to international audiences for a cost of £110 per year.
For this, fans had access to every game played in the Championship, League One and League Two. All games were streamed live to desktops and smartphones, with highlights and behind the scenes content also available on the platform.
Revenue Directly to Clubs
The iFollow service was designed to help fans directly support their club by directing at least 70% of revenues going to them. Clubs had to opt into the iFollow platform first, earning them the status as an “EFL Digital club”.
Some clubs, including Birmingham City, Derby County, and Sunderland have opted not to join iFollow and launch their own streaming services. For example, BIrming City offers fans access to matches via its BluesTV service.
The fan signs up to iFollow directly through their club, giving them access to all the games that a particular team plays in. If they want to watch the games of multiple teams, they must buy multiple subscriptions.
Access for UK Fans
After a successful first season, iFollow was opened up to fans in the UK as well. Fans could pay £10 to watch individual games or a season ticket for £45. The domestic fee is much cheaper than the international annual subscription because many games are excluded.
The 3 pm matches and any that are shown on TV cannot be streamed live on iFollow. This didn’t put fans off, with 50,000 live streams watched in the UK in its first three months of operation.
This was about 50% of the number of international streams, but with fewer games to watch in the first place, 50,000 is a respectable figure.
A Benefit to the League?
There had been a concern that better access to games would put people off going to watch the matches in person. The EFL even did a study to assess the impact.
Its initial findings were that match attendances for midweek games were slightly down on previous years. However, their research has shown that the majority of people streaming the games from within the UK are based more than 25 miles away from the stadium.
Their assumptions are that the majority of these are likely people that would not have attended the match in the first place, and therefore iFollow will be generating additional revenue.
CEO of the EFL, Shaun Harvey, has said that iFollow is profitable and that it offers a better product than the Sky Sports TV coverage since all streams will use four cameras, instead of Sky’s one. Ultimately, the EFL needs to find new revenue streams to help its clubs remain sustainable and iFollow looks like a successful attempt at achieving this. Provided that match attendance does not drop significantly, the increase in revenue from streaming will likely more than offset the loss of ticket sales.