How the Return of Sports during COVID Impacted Viewership
Sports programming has always been among the most lucrative and popular content for television networks. The return of televised sports after the hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic was anticipated by fans looking for some semblance of normalcy. While viewers are again able to enjoy watching their favorite teams, American sports viewership proves unpredictable – much like everything else in 2020. It was expected that viewers would flock to their screens once the delay of the sports seasons had been lifted; however, most major sports have experienced a decrease in ratings from their previous seasons.
After the first four weeks of the NFL season, overall audience viewership was down 10% when compared to the year prior. The NBA Finals had about 50% fewer viewers from 2019, and delivered the lowest finals ratings on record. The MLB World Series ended with an overall decline in ratings of 36% from last year, while the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals was the least-watched league championship since 2007. The pandemic has had a unique impact on people’s sports viewing in 2020.
COVID-19 has affected many areas of the day-to-day life of Americans, and sports has not been spared. One of the biggest adjustments to the summer sports leagues in 2020 was the delay of the start of their respective seasons. The Coronavirus pandemic halted games and pushed their return to a point where different sports began to overlap. The NHL Stanley Cup wrapped just as the NBA and MLB held their respective playoffs, while the NFL had just started their season. Four of the major sports leagues were competing for viewership at the same time, and this oversaturation of sports options certainly impacted ratings.
This unprecedented overlap has led to a cannibalizing effect for sports. Sports Media Watch explained the effects: “[Miami Heat’s] Game 3 win marked the first NBA Finals game to ever air on an NFL Sunday. It was dominated by NBC’s Sunday Night Football (Eagles-49ers), which won the head-to-head by 171% in ratings (8.4 to 3.1) and 180% in viewership (15.08 to 5.94M). In the key young adult demographics, SNF won by 105% in Adults 18-49 (4.5 to 2.2) and a comparably modest 65% in Adults 18-34 (3.4 to 2.0)”. After the three-month pause for all sports leagues, the return led to a congested field for viewers, and in turn audiences had to adjust their viewing habits.
The NBA, which normally finishes its regular season in April, had been absent until its return in late-July. To make room for a newly crowded Q3, many games in the NBA bubble aired during daytime, particularly weekday afternoons, when TV viewing levels are much lower than normal game time periods. Major League Baseball managed only a 60-game season, and typically begins its season in late March or early April, but ultimately had to delay the start of its 2020 season until late July. Both the NBA and the MLB returned to the air in Q3, when TV viewership is typically lower.
Audiences also had to adjust to different game times. The NFL saw two games a night on certain Mondays where there is normally only one game. There was also a week where a game was delayed until Tuesday due to pending COVID test results. Given that athletes, like everyone else, had to contend with the uncertainty and effects of the Coronavirus, some players opted not to play this season for personal reasons while others fell ill and could not play. These factors likely also impacted viewership.
It is important to note that niche sports, such as auto racing and golf, have not suffered nearly the same levels of ratings loss. NASCAR races and PGA events were the first live sporting events to return in late Q2 and captured those sports-starved fans. While the length of their seasons was adjusted, the leagues aired the events in normal time periods, so fans did not have to adjust their viewing habits.
American eyeballs have also been watching more news programming. One trend that can be seen throughout this year is the rise in news viewership. Wayne Friedman writes for Television News Daily and says, “Collectively, the top three cable TV news networks’ average prime-time viewership has spiked 71% to 10.1 million Nielsen-measured viewers in the live program-plus-same day time-shifted viewing metric, compared to 5.9 million in October 2019.” In addition, Friedman also states, “Total day viewership is 52% higher to 5.2 million (vs. 3.4 million in October 2019). All three networks claim record results.” The rise in news ratings may also support the decline for sports programming viewership – sports fans are less concerned with how their favorite teams are performing during this eventful year.
The NFL now has the remainder of their season all to themselves and has showcased some of the highest weekly ratings this season. They remain DVR-proof and as leagues begin to slowly allow fans back into their buildings, excitement is expected to rise. However, raising COVID cases in many parts of the country may see a rollback in fans in stadiums. 2020 has been unpredictable and sports viewership has been no different. As the NFL ratings bounce back, the hope is that Q4 sports viewership and beyond will slowly return to a more normal pace.