The biggest TV sporting events in UK history

Regular broadcast television has been gradually declining for at least a decade now – viewers are being enticed away from regular, scheduled channels by streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu that offer far more choice as well as the ability to watch what you want, when you want.

This has created an interesting situation when analysing the most popular sporting events shown on regular broadcast TV during the past sixty years or so. For example, the number one sports broadcast of all time here in the United Kingdom has not changed in 54 years, when over 32 million Britons tune in to watch Bobby Moore’s team defeat West Germany in the World Cup Final.

Comparison of Sports vs Other Genres

Interestingly, not all types of television broadcast are losing their viewership figures in the same way as sporting events. Many of the most popular television programs in the UK are soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street, both of which continue to attract more than 20 million viewers for every episode. It’s worth noting that both shows can easily be watched via catch-up services such as ITV Player and BBC iPlayer, so its obvious that fans are keen to watch these shows as soon as possible.

The Top Ten Throughout History

As previously mentioned, England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany at Wembley remains the most popular sporting event ever shown on UK television with 32.3m viewers, though the game did have several advantages over major tournaments which are broadcast today.

Firstly, the game was shown simultaneously on multiple channels – both ITV and the BBC chose to air the game, which may have had a significant effect on total viewership. At the time, there were only three channels to choose from – with two of those showing the same program, it didn’t leave much else for people to watch.

Second Place – 2020 Euro Championship Final, England v Italy

Football also takes place on the list, and again this is another game which benefited from a simulcast on both ITV and BBC1. More than 80% of the 30.2 million total viewers preferred Gary Lineker’s BBC broadcast over Mark Pougatch’s presentation on ITV. Whether that was down to people preferring Lineker as a host, or simply the lack of adverts on the BBC, is open to debate.

The bookmakers were offering betting odds of 6/4 on an England victory, but these were most likely swayed by the large number of bets placed by England fans, rather than a genuine analysis of each team. Sadly for Britons everywhere, the England team were once again denied any new silverware thanks to a 3-2 loss by penalty shootout.

Third Place – 1970 FA Cup Final Replay: Chelsea vs Leeds United

For a third time, Football appears in the top ten. This time, however, the observant will likely have spotted the huge fifty-year gap between the previous entry and this one. 2020 was a strange year for the world as a whole, with many more people spending significantly more time at home than usual, which led to an increase in TV viewership across the board. As we’ll soon see, this is a pattern which is evident through much of this list.

Fourth Place – Euro 2020 Semi Final: England vs Denmark

Leaving little doubt as to just how popular Football is in the United Kingdom, we see another European Championship match grab the fourth-place spot in our list. The betting odds on offer for this game strongly favoured England, but with a score of 1-1 after 90 minutes, the nation held its breath as extra time began.

Harry Kane delivered a mediocre penalty during extra-time, but redeemed himself on the bounce, scoring what proved to be the decisive goal.

Fifth Place – The Fight of the Century

During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, boxing was hugely popular in the United Kingdom. The reasons for its downturn in popularity are not well-understood, but it could be argued that it is one result of society taking a generally more negative attitude towards all forms of violence. That said, the UFC has experienced extraordinary growth during the past decade, despite being a much more brutal sport.

Whatever the case, 27.5 million Britons tuned in to watch American fighters Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier face off at Madison Square Garden in 1971. This was the first time that two undefeated boxers had met in the ring to contest the heavyweight championship and is widely regarded as the biggest boxing match in history – the worldwide audience was estimated to be in the region of one billion people.

The fight went the distance, with Frazier winning by unanimous decision after 15 rounds. Unlike many fighters who found themselves in a similar position in later years, Muhammed Ali did not let his defeat deter him from continuing to fight.

The Future?

Analysts believe we are unlikely to ever see a sporting event overtake the 1966 World Cup final in terms of British viewership – even the 2012 London Olympics could not attract a similar audience, with just 24.46 million viewers tuning in for the closing ceremony of what was arguably the most significant British sporting event of modern times. Can this possibly be accurate? It seems unlikely.

The television sports industry needs to get with the times and adjust its recording methods to incorporate data from multiple sources, just as the music industry did when it became clear that sales of physical media were no longer representative of the British public’s appetite for specific bands, artists, and songs.