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“You can’t watch everything at once”: Why US sports TV ratings have been down during the pandemic

The NBA, NHL and MLB all suffered double-digit domestic viewership declines this year as rescheduled seasons and events were squeezed into the second half of 2020. But how much should be read into the drops, and what implications might they have going forward?

11 December 2020 Sam Carp

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Remember that time when we all resorted to watching marble runs as a source of entertainment?

It seems hard to believe that it was a mere eight months ago that the absence of sport left us yearning for any kind of live action, starved of the very thing around which weekend plans are made and time in charge of the television remote is booked. The general consensus was that when sport did eventually get back underway, record numbers of people would be ready to receive it, irrespective of what it was.

For a short while that theory held firm. When Nascar became one the first sports to reappear on US television screens in mid-May, an average 6.32 million viewers watched the Real Heroes 400 on the main Fox broadcast network, an increase of some 38 per cent on the last event to take place before the stock car racing series was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic. A month later, CBS’s coverage of the last day of the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Open in Texas roped in an average audience of 3.091 million people, the tournament’s most-watched final round in 16 years and an uptick of more than 50 per cent on the 2019 event.

What fewer people predicted, however, was that viewership for many of the major leagues would take such a dive in the second half of 2020. Viewership for the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Stanley Cup finals plummeted a whopping 61 per cent on last year. For the National Basketball Association (NBA) finals it was down 51 per cent. Major League Baseball’s (MLB) World Series was the lowest rated in history, its average of 9.72 million viewers across six games on Fox a 30 per cent decline on last year’s Fall Classic.

Lower ratings do not necessarily lead to lower rights fees. It all depends upon the value of the sport inside a bundle or in comparison to everything else.

There were also significant decreases across several crown jewel events. Horse racing’s Kentucky Derby, held in September after being dislodged from its familiar slot on the first Saturday in May, saw its domestic audience fall 49 per cent compared to 2019. The Masters, despite delivering the most-watched golf broadcast of the year, still returned its lowest-rated final round since 1957. There were also drops for the US Open in both tennis and golf, as well as across various other sports. 

Given how much sport there has been to watch, the surprise isn’t necessarily that viewership has been down, but rather, how far some of the figures have fallen.

“I think anybody would be lying to you if they’ve not been shocked by some of the double-digit dives,” says Octagon senior vice president Daniel Cohen. “I think coming out of the gate we expected the big boost which most leagues got, but the sustainability of that was shorter.

“The drop off for some of the jewel events – The Masters, the World Series, the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup – I don’t think anyone thought it would be that steep of a decline.”

Those steep declines made for plenty of attention-grabbing headlines, yet it is important to view them in the context of a year when few things went as expected. Indeed, for every question exists an answer, but there are several to consider when we ask why US sports viewership has been down in 2020.

Making choices in a crowded environment

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the viewership drops is that there has simply been too much sport happening at once. The suspension of virtually everything from mid-March left a long list of leagues and events scrambling to get things done within the same window of time, which meant several tier one sports were in the unfamiliar situation of competing with one another for eyeballs.

On one evening in September, for example, US sports fans could take their pick from the NBA and NHL postseason, NFL and MLB regular season games, as well as the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Major League Soccer (MLS), college football, tennis’ US Open and the opening round of the PGA Tour’s Safeway Open.

That might sound like a dream scenario for your average sports aficionado, but the increase of options available naturally meant that viewers ended up spread across more sports broadcasts than would typically be happening at that time of year.

“Even in a pandemic, you can’t watch everything at once,” begins Patrick Crakes, a strategic media consultant and former senior Fox executive. “If you’re going to lower the pool of the casuals, and you’re going to be depending more and more on a heavier type of sports fan, even those guys and gals are going to have trouble sorting out a crowded environment – you have to make some choices.

“Minutes of sports consumed, which is the proper way to measure this, was up, and its share of all minutes consumed was up. So it’s not about sports, it’s about the environment, and if you’re going to jam everything together over a 60-day period, a lot of it being crown jewel events, it’s not so much fatigue as it is they [viewers] have to make more choices.

“So they start prioritising, or you flip between, which reduces your length of tune. Your reach stays the same, which explains the minutes, but the ratings declines can be explained by either flipping or making choices.”

Moving The Masters to November created a schedule clash with the NFL

“You’re dealing with a presidential election plus pandemic news cycle”

As Crakes points out, competition wasn’t only coming from other sports.

“The folks who are in the TV ecosystem, they’re consuming more news than ever before across all sorts of different pay-TV channels and broadcast television with local news,” he says. “There’s a reason why the local broadcast television stations are all going to have a great quarter in the United States when they report their financials, because political advertising is off the hook and those broadcast television affiliates technically reach everyone in the market either through pay-TV bundles or over the air for free.”

Indeed, the Associated Press reported in early October that viewership of cable news in the US was up 72 per cent compared to 2019, and it would be fair to say we’ve all found ourselves watching the news more than we would like to this year, awaiting updates on the latest coronavirus information, whether it relate to the number of cases, local restrictions in our area or progress with regards to a vaccine.

But then there has also been a US presidential election cycle to factor into the equation, something which in 2016 contributed towards the NFL’s midseason viewership being down 14 per cent on average in comparison to the previous year. 

In other words, people have had other things to worry about than how their sports team is doing.

“Overall, going way back to 2008, you see all sports – with the lighthouse being the NFL – take a dive during the election cycle, and then they come back,” Cohen notes. “So election news takes up your brain and capacity and eyeballs for a bit, but then just the constant 24/7 news cycle of how many cases today? Is the vaccine coming now?

“So you’re not just dealing with the presidential election news cycle, you’re dealing with a presidential election plus pandemic news cycle.” 

Sports also lost viewers to a news cycle dominated both by the pandemic and US presidential election 

“You don’t have the separation of taking that tube”

It is also true that the pandemic has significantly altered our habits and behaviours this year.

Crakes alludes to the fact that television usage in general has been down in 2020, not only due to the initial pause of live sport, but also because of the dearth of new entertainment programming being produced across the board. That in turn reduces the pool of people available to watch, as well as reducing the likelihood of casual viewers stumbling across a major sports broadcast.

Meanwhile, Cohen argues that another “huge” piece in the viewership drops has been cord-cutting, which he says saw pay-TV subscriptions in the US decline by between seven and eight per cent from the second to third quarter of this year. That is a phenomenon that the industry was well aware of before Covid-19, but one which many believe has been accelerated by the pandemic, as people increasingly turned to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to keep themselves occupied. 

According to Octagon data, roughly 2.1 million pay-TV subscribers cut the cord in Q1, which was double that for the same quarter in 2019. For Q2, that figure fell slightly to 1.9 million, compared with 1.47 million a year earlier. In Q3, however, when the majority of sport returned, the pattern of steep declines was arrested as the number fell to 120,000.

If you’re going to be working from home from eight to 6:30 every day, are you going to turn on that baseball game or are you going to go for your bike ride now?

“It’s not to say that sport isn’t being consumed with the same ferocity,” Cohen notes. “People still want to watch, but how they watch, for durations across multiple platforms, getting some of their sport from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, streaming, free-to-air, pay-TV, satellite, there’s just more platforms than ever before, so I think that fragmentation piece and that consumer behaviour piece has played a role.”

Beyond evolving consumer trends and habits, the impact that the pandemic has had on daily routines – working from home, being indoors for longer periods of time, and limiting physical interactions – should also not be ignored.

“Peoples’ behaviours are shifting, and that’s different,” Cohen adds. “If you’re going to be working from home from eight to 6:30 every day, are you going to turn on that baseball game or are you going to go for your bike ride now? 

“Because the other thing we’re watching in terms of socioeconomic factors, people are working longer in work from home environments, you don’t have the separation of taking that tube, taking that subway, driving in your car home, which then is that psychological separation from, ‘now I’m home, I turn on the TV and I watch the NBA.’”

Viewership for the NBA Finals dropped 51 per cent despite the draw of the Lakers and LeBron

Impact of player protests on ratings “blown out of proportion”

Three games into this year’s NBA finals Senator Ted Cruz instigated a virtual sparring session with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban when he tweeted that it was ‘not surprising’ to see the champion-crowning series’ ratings down for this year, alongside the hashtag #GoWokeGoBroke.

That was, of course, in reference to the player protests against systemic racism that took place far and wide this year, which some, including outgoing US president Donald Trump, claimed was playing a part in the viewership declines.

For its part, the NFL said in an internal memo leaked in early October that the league saw ‘no evidence’ that player protests during the national anthem were having ‘any material impact’ on its ratings. It is also worth noting that the WNBA, whose stars were at the forefront of this year’s surge of athlete activism, saw a 27 per cent increase in viewership across its finals series.

And Cohen notes that while Octagon’s research indicates that some people – “just older males”, he says – have turned off because of the social justice messages, its impact has been “blown out of proportion”. 

“I would suggest that it’s not necessarily the one or the fourth biggest impact factor,” he adds, “but there is a small contingency that says if you’re going to take a knee, if you’re going to put a name on the back of a jersey, I’m going to tune out. 

“When you really get into the data here, you’re seeing that mixed fanbases – based on demographics, culture, ethnicity, gender – haven’t really changed, they’re still a fan. We can draw a presumptive line that if they’re still identifying as a fan, they’re still watching.”

“Linear numbers will not return to what they were”

It is worth noting that this year’s viewership declines have come at a time when some of the major leagues – namely the NFL and NHL – are about to enter their next round of media rights talks. 

Those due to sit down at the negotiating table will have been reassured by MLB’s recently signed seven-year, US$3.2 billion renewal with Turner Sports, which represented a 40 per cent increase on the network’s existing deal and would suggest that broadcasters will continue to pay what they have to in order to keep their most valuable live sports content.

In fact, rather than produce reduced rights fees, both Cohen and Crakes agree that the pandemic will instead accelerate a preexisting condition, whereby tier one sports command a larger share of broadcasters’ acquisition budgets, which could have profound implications for those lower down the food chain. 

“Lower ratings do not necessarily lead to lower rights fees,” Crakes asserts. “It all depends upon the value of the sport inside a bundle or in comparison to everything else, and if that sport is viewed as a one or two or three top reason to have a pay-TV bundle, or if the viewing for that sport is top five, and it used to be 20 per cent better than everything else, and now it’s 40 per cent better than everything else, there’s not an argument for going backwards on rights fees.”

NFL viewership was down just six per cent at the halfway stage

It would be fair to assume, then, that most leagues won’t be reading too much into this year’s drops. Another reason to be positive is that viewing figures for some have held firm – or even increased – during the pandemic.

Not that it needed to, but the NFL has reaffirmed its dominance, with viewership at the midseason point down only six per cent on last year, a figure that could yet end up even smaller by the end of the regular season. NBC’s Nascar coverage matched its viewership numbers from the 2019 campaign, while the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) domestic television audiences were up 500 per cent.

Having said that, the 2021 calendar remains uncertain and is likely to bring with it further scheduling clashes that will continue to have an impact on viewership. The next question, then, is whether numbers will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels, or if Covid-19 has fundamentally changed viewing habits and behaviours for good.

“Linear numbers will not, in my opinion, return ever again to what they were,” Cohen states. “But – and the big but there is – I think there’s great opportunity looking at total audience delivery to exceed pre-pandemic level, and that’s where the smart rights owners and rights holders together need to look at things like the non-live shoulder programming.

“Look at what the [Michael] Jordan documentary did on ESPN, look at Tottenham [Hotspur] on Amazon and what that’s done. Look at social media as a form of a metric to include in the viewership. Look at your owned and operated platforms, look at your direct-to-consumers. You have to take the whole pie together.

“We can’t fight the change. The change is happening. So how do we take advantage of that and think far and beyond that old traditional linear only model? And then, if you look at those total numbers, I think you’re actually going to see increased viewership.”

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