As we reported last month, ratings for the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs were down significantly this year. However, the NHL’s drop in viewership was not alone. In fact, it was very much the norm.
Ratings for the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals were down 61 percent this year. Ratings for the NBA finals were down 49 percent. Baseball down 26%. Golf, tennis, horse racing and other sports also saw huge declines. Even the NFL was down 13 percent through Week 5.
This could be seen as a bit of a surprise. It seemed that fans were desperate for sports during the first few months of the pandemic, but the idea that sports coming back would automatically bring fans to their televisions in huge numbers has turned out to not be true.
So what happened? Experts have a number of theories.
According to an article in USA Today, there might be too much sports to watch. “Everyone is excited in the spring like, ‘Oh we’ll have this incredible fall with so much sports to watch,’” said Austin Karp, the managing editor/digital at Sports Business Journal who closely tracks ratings and the sports television industry. “But the problem is there is that tonnage. That’s why we spread this out over the course of the year. People are inundated with, ‘OK, I have football, do I really need to watch the NBA Finals? My mind is trained to watch that in June.”
Another, more obvious theory is the lack of fans in attendance may have diminished enthusiasm. The absence of fans in the stands is a psychological cue that these games don’t mean as much. “The crowd going crazy is part of the allure of watching sports on TV,” Karp said. “Crowd goes wild is an expression for a reason.”
A more pragmatic reason for viewership declines relates to the timing of games. An unusually high number of games were played early in the day. The NHL had games at noon on weekdays, the MLS tried 9 a.m. Eastern weekday kickoffs — when fewer people watch. General viewership from 1 to 6 p.m. was 38 percent lower than prime time in August.
When sports were played in more traditional time slots, they faced unusually tough competition. Viewership of cable news in early October was up 79 percent compared with last year, an increase of four million viewers, no doubt because of the presidential election, the pandemic and related news.
There are also standard cyclical trends that affected some sports and their viewers. August 2019 viewership was down 9 percent from April 2019 viewership, as people watch less television in summer than in spring. This year, that hurt leagues like the NBA and NHL, which typically end before the summer.
More significantly, world, national and local news captured the headlines. There’s a presidential election going on in a highly charged political climate, which echoes some of the data Karp saw from 2016 when some news and commentary shows were up 30%. “Viewership in cable news networks is up significantly, and right now, especially once the president got COVID, that’s all anyone was watching,” Karp said. “It affected college football numbers (last weekend). It affected everything.”
There are also smaller factors that are even harder to quantify. The NHL’s conference finals featured four teams that were relatively unpopular. The NBA playoffs were without the Golden State Warriors. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal missed the U.S. Open. Horse racing lost its traditional Triple Crown cadence and atmosphere. Outside of sports, there were wildfires in California and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. And lower viewership generally meant fewer people saw promo spots for upcoming games.
In addition, fewer people are watching television. More viewers than normal are choosing to watch news. Game schedules were optimized to safely complete events in a compressed time frame, not to maximize viewership. More sports than ever are happening at the same time and thus competing for eyeballs. And, of course, many smaller factors play a part.
So what does this mean going forward?
Maybe something, maybe nothing. The sports and television executives that spoke with the New York Times said they did not see evidence that these ratings declines would continue after the pandemic. “There are so many reasons to think this is an anomalous time,” said Cary Meyers, a senior vice president and head of research at ESPN.
According to the New York Times, incomplete data, a variety of new factors and an odd 2020 mean it’s way too early to know exactly why Americans are watching less of some of the most popular leagues.
It’s likely 2020 is a throwaway year for sports viewership data with regards to detailing long term trends. Only time will tell the true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sports viewership.
By Jon Sorensen