Will sports marketing become a victim of the pandemic?
A sharp descent in sports event viewership ratings has led to concerns that live sports will land among the pandemic’s casualties.
Ratings for the recent NBA finals tumbled 49 percent, the NHL finals plunged 61 percent and MLB’s World Series sunk 32 percent. Golf, tennis, horse racing and other sports also suffered steep declines.
Among the explanations being offered:
- News distractions: Cable news ratings have soared due to coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. election.
- Cannibalization: Events from the NBA, NHL, MLB and a host of others all competed against each with their summer restarts.
- Timing: The radically changed schedules, including the late summer placements of the NBA and NHL playoffs, as well as daytime games, felt unnatural for viewers.
- Player politics: Some have charged that the NBA’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice messaging turned off viewers, even though sharp declines were seen across many major sports.
- Lack of fans: The absence or scarcity of fans in the stands may have dulled the excitement around watching events.
Whatever the reason(s), stay-at-home behavioral changes have left some wondering how quickly and to what degree fans will return to watching sports.
“This familiar, linear nature of our lives has been interrupted,” Dennis Deninger, a professor in sports communications at Syracuse University, told USA Today. “In the first six months of 2020, Netflix added 5.2 million new homes subscribing in the United States and brought their total to almost 73 million. They don’t have any sports. Regardless of how your schedule has been upended, you can watch what you want when you want and escape into fiction.”
Encouragingly, NFL games are only down six percent across television and digital platforms after a slow start, according to the league and Nielsen. Reflecting the allure of the real-time action of sports, 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 told The Associated Press, “Now that the election [story] is nearing an end I think people will go back to kind of normal consumption patterns. So we think we have weathered the storm.”
- TV Ratings for Many Sports Are Down. Don’t Read Too Much Into It Yet. – The New York Times
- Falling TV ratings across most sports? Here are four reasons to explain drop during pandemic – USA Today
- NFL television ratings see 6% decline at midseason point – The Associated Press
- Though sports viewership is down, games still are among most-watched broadcasts – Chicago Sun-Times
- Why live sports TV ratings are down for all the big leagues – Yahoo Finance
- Marist Center for Sports Communication/Marist Poll Results & Analysis – Marist Center for Sports Communication
- Against the stream: Live sports return to TV, but not everyone is watching – Cronkite News
- What does the loss of sport mean for retail? – RetailWire
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think are the factors driving the viewership ratings declines as sporting events returned? Are the declines more of an anomaly or do they underscore longer-term risks facing sports viewership and related marketing?