When the Appetite for Entertainment Scores Goals
Romania is attacking on the left side of the pitch, Răzvan Marin and Florin Tănase have a short exchange of passes in the corner of the penalty box, which opens some wide spaces for the latter to penetrate and make a decisive pass for Eric Bicfalvi, who, at 32, scores his first goal for the representative team of Romania, at his eighth cap. It was the 81st minute of the UEFA Nations League match on Windsor Park in Belfast. Around the same time that Răzvan, Florin and Eric had their passing game combinations, allowing the latter to find the back of the net, Sorin, Florin and Cătălin were finding the back of the plate. They were, obviously, not on any football pitch, but they were starring, as chefs and judges, in a well-known cooking show in Romania.
The football match and the cooking show were both broadcasted on November 18th, 2020, during prime time, by two of the most followed commercial broadcasters of the country: ProTV (the match) and Antena1 (the cooking show). Their own battle was won by the cooking show – not only in terms of numbers (the audience differences were rather low), but moreover as a media statement. Usually, the matches of a national football team are a magnet for audiences, with viewers tuning in to watch the games of the favorites. But both the sporting performances and the media landscape have changed so drastically over the recent period, that it is no wonder that, during the interval when Romania was facing Northern Ireland, 1.73 million people were watching the cooking show, and 1.64 the football match (according to audience data presented by www.paginademedia.ro).
The difference might not be huge, but it is an indication that Romanian football is experiencing a disconnect from its fans. Several explanations might be found. First, let’s just blame it on the COVID-19 pandemic situation: without fans in the stands to sing and cheer for their teams, football matches in 2020 have been more than tedious. Atmosphere created by fans plays a major role in the appeal of a match when viewed from the couch. And when football is not just a sport, but a media product, broadcasters wish for that atmosphere to exist, as it provides immersion and, consequently, rating points. And also speaking of COVID-19, maybe the health issues or social dramas that the pandemic has created in local communities or in families have driven away the joy of watching football. In the US, the much-hallowed sports leagues that were among the few things bringing the country together have experienced a precipitous decline in viewership and general engagement. One theory there that might apply to Romania is that sports are an opportunity for social interaction, either during or after the match. Without the social interaction, the ritual of watching sports, especially live, loses its meaning and exits more and more people’s routine. Other forms of entertainment do not have that social angle that gives sports their staying power, but was also highly affected by the pandemic.
The problems might not necessarily lie with the pandemic (although this has its share as well), but with the underperformances of Romania’s national team, which failed to qualify for the final tournament of the European Championship and which also missed a promotion to Level A of the Nations League. Of six matches played on the pitch before the Northern Ireland game (excluding the Norway fixture, a 3-0 win due to COVID-induced problems), Romania had won two (of which one was a friendly against underrated Belarus), drawn one and lost three.
With poor results, it is not a wonder that audiences drift away from football to other shows. The multitude of entertainment devices and content delivery channels allows TV shows to approach their audiences omnichannel and live as well. Sports organizations that want to keep their fans might think of adopting best practices seen on talent shows for their own live match broadcasts, or, else, their marketability will suffer. What is interesting as well is that one day earlier, on November 17th, the qualification game of the national youth side (U21) against Denmark was also broadcasted by ProTV. The stake of qualifying to the U21 Euro tournament (which the team coached by former international Adrian Mutu eventually managed to achieve after a 1-1 draw) made 1.79 million viewers tune in on ProTV during prime time, while Antena 1 was running another episode of the same cooking show, watched by almost 1.77 million people. The fact that the match of the youth side has been watched by more spectators than the game of the senior squad can be explained by the real chances of qualification that the youth side still had. And another important detail that needs to be underlined is that the age segment of 18 to 49 years old – which includes a big chunk of the future football fans in Romania – opted for the cooking show (0.43 million viewers for Antena1 versus 0.34 million viewers for ProTV). It looks like Romanian football needs a post-COVID media strategy in order to stay relevant. It needs to understand that the competition from other media is increasing, especially during times when people are cocooning at home due to lockdown restrictions. Bon Appétit!