“The Curse of ITV”: A Deeper Dive

With England set to take on reigning world champions France in the Quarter-Finals of the 2022 World Cup in The Place Where Human Rights Go To Die, there’s been a lot of attention paid to the channel set to broadcast the match in the UK.

Word is, it’s a channel that – whenever it broadcasts live England matches in major tournaments – isn’t particularly lucky. And this is news. Well, content that’s easy to throw online. Sure, they beat Senegal 3-0 on ITV the other day, but with the France match also to be shown by the commercial broadcaster, that jinx is surely going to kick in, right? Right?

There must be some other reason for the team’s less-successful performance on ITV, surely? It could be anything, from ITV tending to bagsy advertiser-friendly clashes against bigger nations, to the BBC blagging first pick of easier-to-win group stage matches, to Bob Wilson having placed a curse on the broadcaster when they failed to renew his contract in 2002.

Well, I’ve looked up some stats, so why don’t we look at those potential reasons in detail? Oh, lets.

First up: a summary. I’ve gone back as far as Euro 96 finals matches for the stats, and used information from England Football Online for broadcaster details for each match. I’ve taken into account every England match in the finals since then (apart from the Third Place Play-Off against Belgium from 2018, because it’s not a proper match and tells us nothing). I’ve included every proper finals tournament match since 1996, including the Round of Sixteen victory over Senegal the other day. Which was on ITV. So, that should nudge the numbers at least a little their way.

Firstly, here are the headline figures, the ones that were quoted a lot over the last week. Where BBC and ITV have both shown the same match, I’ve put them in a third category. And where a knockout stage match has ended in a draw and gone to penalties, I’ve gone with the winner or loser of the penalty shoot-out.

So, that’s pretty unequivocal isn’t it? Winning 76% of the time on BBC, but only 28.57% of the time on ITV. England are much worse on ITV. End of discussion.

Except: no it isn’t. There must be a reason behind this. But what might that reason be?

No, having presenters and pundits with less gravitas than their BBC counterparts doesn’t count as a reason.

POTENTIAL REASON ONE: “THE NUMBERS ARE MUDDIED BY ENGLAND ALWAYS BEING RUBBISH IN THE EUROS (WELL, UNTIL 2021)”

Okay, let’s split out the information into two sets:

Well, there’s definitely a theme there. England are even more likely to win matches at the Euros than the World Cup (perhaps not surprising, as in the latter they’re playing the best teams from around the world), but the bad luck seems evenly spread for ITV broadcasts across both tournaments.

So, it’s not that.

POTENTIAL REASON TWO: “THE BBC TEND TO GET MORE GROUP GAMES, WHICH ENGLAND ARE MORE LIKELY TO WIN. ITV PICK MORE KNOCKOUT STAGE MATCHES, FOR THOSE SWEET, SWEET ADVERTISING BUCKS.”

Well, that would make sense. The Beeb do seem to cover a more group stage games, and that’s where the opponents are more likely to be minnows sloshing around at the deep end of the FIFA rankings. How many games from each stage of tournaments has each broadcaster covered?

Oh, okay. A very slight lead for the BBC when it comes to group stage matches in World Cups, but overall it’s ITV who are more likely to feature group stage matches at major tournaments. So, not that then.

Let’s take a quick look at those matches in more detail. Surely England are equally inept in the knockout stages on both channels? And equally capable in the group stages on both channels? Well, you’d think. And you’d be wrong to do so.

England typically win over 87% of group stage matches shown on the Beeb, and only 22.73% of those shown on ITV. Ouch. In the Euros, it’s even more pronounced, with England winning an improved percentage (33.3%) of group games on ITV, but England win a full 100% of group games shown on the BBC. In Euros knockout stages, it’s a similar story: 60% of England’s Euros knockout games shown on the BBC are won by the Three Lions, but only 50% of those shown on ITV.

For the World Cup, it’s a similar story. 81.82% of World Cup group games won by England on the Beeb, only 10% of them when on Independent Television. But at least there’s parity when it comes to knockout games, a 50:50 record for each broadcaster, from an admittedly small sample set.

If you’re wondering, the only time England have ever won a knockout match broadcast by both BBC and ITV: the 3-0 win over Denmark in the round of sixteen from 2002.

POTENTIAL REASON THREE: “OKAY, IT’S JUST A QUIRK OF FATE THAT ENGLAND TEND TO PLAY BETTER TEAMS WHEN THEY’RE ON ITV. THAT’LL BE IT.”

This is one that needs a little more digging. To try and work that out, you’d need to have access to a list of every set of FIFA World Rankings since they were first introduced in late 1993. And how would you even get that data?

By downloading the info from Kaggle, that’s how. God bless Kaggle (specifically Kaggle user Alex, the Python programmer from Kyiv who did all that statistical digging. Hope he’s okay).

Here we go. Basically, on the following table, a lower number represents a tougher opponent, a higher number represents a weaker one.

A lot of numbers to unpack there, but in summary: in major tournaments England tend to beat tougher opponents more often on the BBC, and lose to weaker opponents more often on ITV.

Looking just at World Cups for example, in group stages, England score victories over teams ranked (on average) 23rd place if they’re on the BBC. Over on ITV, they only get the better of teams ranked an average of 47th place. Similarly, if England are on the BBC, it’d take a team placed 7th(ish) in the world rankings to beat them. On ITV, it only takes a team rated 15th in the world.

On slightly hopeful note for ITV – in knockout World Cup matches, England tend to beat teams ranked an average of 16th on the light channel. Over on fusty Auntie Beeb, they’re only bettering teams ranking 27th on average. Though in fairness, as we’ve seen higher up the page, those nice neat figures are based on two knockout wins and two knockout losses for each broadcaster, so hardly using a wealth of data there. Those are some pretty thin straws for the commercial broadcast to be grasping at.


So, that seems to have exhausted all the most likely excuses for England’s poor form when appearing on ITV.

Oh wait, there was one more.

POTENTIAL REASON FOUR: “BOB WILSON PLACED A CURSE ON ITV AFTER THEY FAILED TO RENEW HIS CONTRACT IN 2002.”

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. ITV is cursed: FACT. And the former Arsenal and Scotland stopper is to blame. You read it here first.


NOTE: Updated 7 Dec 2022 to correct some figures – I’d incorrectly had the Euro 96 Semi has being ITV-only, but it was shown on BBC and ITV. Number now corrected accordingly – thanks to eagle-eyed David Howell for pointing out the error. And a slightly belated nod going out to Matthew Harris, with whom a conversation on Mastodon compelled me to dive into this big ol’ pool of figures.

5 responses to ““The Curse of ITV”: A Deeper Dive”

  1. I wonder how much, besides the headline data, comes from how *memorable* the ITV knockout losses have been – Argentina in 1998, then Iceland (a country with fewer people than the customer base of its namesake British supermarket that is number nine in market share) in 2016, and then Croatia in 2018 in a first semi-final for a generation. Those last two, by the way, combine with Uruguay in the 2014 group stage to mean England had three consecutive elimination matches – all on ITV – to countries with a smaller population than London.

    Between them.

    I believe there’s been a miscoding on the Euro data by the way – both the 1996 semi-final and 2020 (sic) final were simulcasts (and are listed as such on the source used), so there should be only one ITV-only knockout loss (2016). This does make the average rank for the ITV losses even worse of course, as that one loss was to, again, ICELAND.
    (The WC data are, AFAICT, correct.)

    Like

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