Sports TV ratings plummeted this year, and it doesn’t look like they’ll surge back 2021, either. The pandemic has likely changed viewing habits forever.
While sports leagues will still reap the rewards of multibillion-dollar TV contracts well into the next decade, they will be forced to adjust. The landscape is dramatically shifting.
The 2020 sports calendar was one of the most chaotic in history. The coronavirus halted the entire sports world this spring, with leagues returning to play in June and July. We saw the NBA, WNBA and NHL play in Covid bubbles; MLB teams play in front of empty stadiums and cardboard cutouts; NBA Finals games getting tipped off in October. The tumult did not help ratings. Viewership for the Stanley Cup Finals dipped by 61%, and the NBA Finals were down 49%. It was the least-watched World Series on record.
Even the almighty NFL is scuffling, with ratings down 7% through Week 14. The lower-than-expected numbers are causing NFL TV partners to give away some free advertising spots and present other make-good offers to sponsors, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Some surveys show players’ embrace of social justice causes like Black lives matter hurt ratings this year, while there’s little doubt our divisive presidential election also siphoned viewers away from games. Cable news networks enjoyed record performances this fall; Fox News made history as the most-watched TV network from May-September.
The peculiar timing of events probably contributed to the ratings slide, too. The NBA playoffs are typically played in the springtime. This year, they took place during the TV doldrums of August.
MORE FOR YOU
Ravens-Steelers, which was scheduled to take place Thanksgiving night, wound up getting played on a Wednesday afternoon. The ratings were roughly half of last year’s Thanksgiving night affair.
But it would be naive to view the 2020 sports ratings dip as an anomaly, says Dennis Deninger, a sports communicators professor at Syracuse University and Emmy-award winning producer.
“We’ve seen major disruptions in people’s behavior patterns,” he told me on the phone. “As a result, even after people have been vaccinated and sports are being played as scheduled again, I think there is going to be for a number of years, a discernible leveling off of sport not returning to the same viewership levels it had pre-pandemic.”
The acceleration of cord-cutting is killing TV
The phenomenon of people cutting the cord and going with streaming services is not new. For years, cable networks have been confronted with fewer subscribers, leading to widespread cuts. ESPN laid off about 300 people in October 2015, and cut loose scores of well-known personalities and journalists in April 2017. At the time, ESPN had lost more than 10 million subscribers over multi-year period.
The pandemic has accelerated many changes in our consumption habits across the retail industry. For example, it pushed forward our shift to e-commerce by five years, according to data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index. As a result, the brick-and-mortar business has been devastated. Analysts predict brick-and-mortar closures could reach 25,000 by year’s end.
Cable TV is another industry that’s been heavily impacted. The TV industry is on track to lose its most ever subscribers this year, with an estimated 6 million households cutting the cord. The number of cord-cutting households is now over 31 million.
Last month, ESPN announced it was laying off an additional 300 people, and not filling 200 more positions. The WorldWide Leader was in nearly 100 million homes in 2013; now, the number stands at around 83 million.
With fewer people watching linear TV, there are obviously fewer eyeballs on televised sporting events.
Dramatically changing habits hurt sports TV ratings
Changed behavior causes viewing habits to change as well. So much of the TV industry is based off ritual: network morning-news shows air as people are getting ready for work; primetime events air when people are settling in at night. But now, we are home a lot more — to say the least. In September, 23% of employed people teleworked, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The firm Global Workplace Analytics estimates 20-25% of the workforce will be working from home at least a couple of days per week by the end of 2021.
With more flexible work schedules, our viewing habits have become increasingly non-linear. Nielsen reports streaming is up 74.4% year-to-year.
“Flexibility and freedom are the definition of streaming services,” Deninger says.
Sports, with their scheduled games, are rigidly timed. In other words, they offer the opposite of flexibility. “In the pre-pandemic era, when people were living more on schedules, watching a game in the evening became part of your schedule,” Deninger says. “Now if you have a big flexible schedule, your viewing patterns have changed tremendously.”
In the streaming world, Netflix is the brand name, and accounted for 34% of total streaming time in Q2. It has everything: classic movies, new releases, dramatic series … but it’s missing sports.
In general, sports are receding from our daily lives. Participation in youth sports has fallen dramatically since March. Overall, there’s been nearly a 50% drop in physical activity among American children since the start of the pandemic, according to the Aspen Institute.
Already, sports participation among Generation Z was declining. The pandemic could push them further away from the fields, and into their digital worlds.
“These people didn’t get a chance to play high school basketball or soccer or football. The team disbanded,” Deninger said. “And when it reformed, there was less interest, because ‘I’m going to go home and watch Netflix.’”
The Gen Z problem is real
Sports leagues have been grappling with aging audiences for years. A 2017 study from Sports Business Journal found the age of the average viewer for each major league — with the exception of WTA Tennis — increased from 2000 to 2016. In some cases, the number increased dramatically: the NHL went from 33 to 49; MLB went from 52 to 57; the NFL went from 44 to 50.
Mark Beal, an assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information who has written two books on Gen Z, says the kids will never settle into the habit of watching a three-hour football game. They didn’t grow up with the routine.
After a landmark television event, such as the Super Bowl or Oscars, Beal says he’ll often ask his students whether they tuned in for a sizable duration of time. Each year, the number of raised hands dwindles.
“Gen Z will tell you time is very valuable,” Beal says. “They don’t see the value in sitting and watching something for three hours, whether that’s a baseball game, the Super Bowl, or the Oscars.”
This is more of a long-term concern for sports leagues, since Generation X and older millennials still hold the spending power. But Gen Z can’t be ignored. They are now the biggest generation in the world.
And they don’t follow sports as closely as their elders. According to ESPN’s internal data, the number of 12-17-year-olds who identify as “avid sports fans” has dropped from 42% a decade ago to 34% last year.
When analyzing Gen Z, Beal says it’s important to keep in mind when they’re coming of age. College students grew up with the Great Recession and were introduced to politics in the Trump years. The pandemic is happening in the most formative years of their lives.
Given all that, they may view sports as less important.
“Yes, all of us, whether you’re a millennial or X or a Boomer, we’ve all been impacted by the pandemic,” Beal says. “We’ve all been impacted by the Black lives matter awakening. But this is during their most formative years. This is when they’re going through so many milestones: first job, off to college, first internship, and many other things. It’s having such an enormous impact on their lives.”
Sports leagues have time to adjust
Fortunately for sports leagues, there is time to adjust. For starters, live sports remain the most valuable product on TV. Last year, NFL games represented 41 of the 50 most-watched shows on TV. The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team drew more than 30 million viewers on Thanksgiving Day.
With those numbers in mind, sports TV rights fees are expected to soar. The NFL, most notably, has rights fees expiring in 2021 and 2022.
But it’s apparent leagues must come up with a new plan to capture prospective fans. The NBA leads the pack when it comes to digital engagement, with more than 148 million followers across all social media platforms — more than the other U.S. leagues combined. It’s seen a 43% growth in social media views over the last three years, says the WaPo.
Rather than getting their highlights from SportsCenter, or even curated highlight packages on YouTube, young people are watching clips on Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok.
The NFL has been heralded for extending its streaming agreement with Amazon Prime, but even that seems a couple of years behind the trend. If the NFL really wanted to be forward-thinking, it would try and stream its games on Twitch. Live-streaming has exploded during the pandemic.
With the cushion of locked-in TV money, sports leagues have the latitude to experiment with new digital strategies. They also have time to make their games seem like special events again. To welcome fans back, Deninger says sports leagues must reassert themselves as part of the daily narrative.
It will take some creativity.
“They’ve got to be sending this message of value and benefit to people: that it’s valuable for you to spend your time watching these events, and there’s a benefit to getting back into the regular viewing of sports,” he said. “There’s a reason for this, a sense of belonging, there’s a specialness to it.”