November 23, 2020
A sharp drop in ratings for sporting events has raised fears that live sports could land among the victims of the pandemic.
Ratings for recent NBA Finals dropped 49%, NHL Finals dropped 61%, and MLB World Series dropped 32%. Golf, tennis, horse racing and other sports also suffered steep declines.
Among the explanations being Free:
- Current entertainment: Cable news ratings have soared due to coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the US election.
- Cannibalization: Events from the NBA, NHL, MLB and a host of others all clashed with their summer restarts.
- Hourly: The drastically changed schedules, including late summer placements of the NBA and NHL playoffs, as well as daytime games, didn’t seem natural to viewers.
- Player Policy: Some have blamed the NBA’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice messaging for turning viewers off, even as steep declines have been seen across many major sports.
- Lack of fans: The absence or scarcity of fans in the stands may have dulled the excitement over the events.
Whatever the reason(s), changes in household behavior have some wondering how quickly and to what extent fans will return to watching sports.
“That familiar, linear nature of our lives has been interrupted,” said Dennis Deninger, professor of sports communication at Syracuse University. USA today. “In the first six months of 2020, Netflix added 5.2 million new subscriber households in the United States and brought their total to nearly 73 million. They don’t have sports. No matter how messed up your schedule has been, you can watch what you want, when you want, and escape into the fiction.
Encouragingly, NFL games are down just 6% on TV and digital platforms after a slow start, according to the league and Nielsen. Reflecting the sport’s real-time action appeal, all but four of the top 30 shows since the season began in September have been NFL games. College football has also turned positive in recent weeks.
NBC Sports Group Chairman Pete Bevacqua said the Associated press, “Now that the elections [story] is coming to an end, I think people will return to normal consumption habits. So we think we’ve weathered the storm.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think are the factors behind the decline in ratings as sporting events return? Are the declines more of an anomaly or do they underscore the longer-term risks facing the sports audience and associated marketing?
“As professional leagues create safe and restrictive bubbles and the election is over, fans can return to sports to fulfill their deep need for community.”