It feels as if television networks should be panicking about their ratings for sporting events, pondering existential questions about how viewing habits have changed amid the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. election.
But they’re not — despite some eye-popping numbers and a lot of armchair criticism.
Ratings for the N.B.A. finals were down 49 percent, and the N.H.L.’s Stanley Cup finals were down a whopping 61 percent. Baseball, golf, tennis, horse racing and other sports have all seen huge declines. Even the usually untouchable N.F.L. was down 13 percent through Week 5.
So what is going on here? A lot. Too much, actually, to pinpoint simple answers. Should everyday fans care? Not particularly — and there are good reasons not to overreact.
To decipher all that the ratings are and are not telling us, we need a sharper understanding of the practical functions they serve.
What even are television ratings?
Nielsen measures television viewership by recruiting thousands of households across the country to install a small digital device called a People Meter. When anyone in the house turns on the TV, the People Meter tracks what is being watched.
From a relatively small sample of viewership, Nielsen estimates how many people across the country watched a given program. There is a bucketful of nuanced terms to deeply analyze ratings — stats like reach, share, average minute rating and people using television. And like sports analysts cherry-picking player stats, networks and executives often put out different numbers in different situations to paint a picture about how a program performed.
How are ratings used?
Ratings provide an objective measurement to determine the prices of commercial slots, meaning they matter most to advertisers and cable companies. “At one level they are just currency for transactions between business partners, and always have been,” said Mike Mulvihill, the head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports.
Ratings also help television companies and sports leagues make important decisions. They calculate not only how many people watched, but demographic data about who watched.
How do ratings matter to fans?
In the short and medium term, ratings affect the fan experience very little because most leagues are not in danger of being canceled in the same way as a reality show or a sitcom.
Still, ratings do have a role in shaping the future of sports: how they are structured, how much money is spent on players and which television or streaming networks carry games.
What is the damage this year?
It is quite bad across the board.
Since each restarted play, the N.B.A. playoffs, N.H.L. playoffs, Major League Baseball regular season and playoffs, United States Open tennis, United States Open golf, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and college football have all had ratings declines of at least 25 percent compared with 2019.
In a normal year, the ratings for a league might be up or down a few percentage points; anything approaching double digits is a pretty big deal. Ratings drops like these are rare for a single league or event, and unheard-of across most of the entire sports television landscape at once.
Why are they all down?
OK, there are some answers, but there is no definitive data on why millions fewer Americans are watching less sports.
You would think there would be. American television companies paid more than $21 billion for sports rights in 2020 and obviously want to know why people are or are not watching. But they don’t have a firm answer to that key question.
Mulvihill said the television industry is like any other that tries, and struggles, to understand consumer behavior. He invoked the famous marketing aphorism from the 19th century merchant John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
A smaller dip, like the N.F.L.’s 13 percent, can be as simple as the average viewer going from watching 110 minutes a game to watching 96 minutes. They might not even know they are watching less than they were last year, and if they do know they might not be able to articulate why.
ESPN and other networks try to better understand fan viewing behavior through surveys and focus groups. But ultimately, anybody that tells you they know the reason viewership has changed is incorrect.
What are the factors leading to this year’s decline?
To begin, fewer people are turning on their televisions. Compared with September 2019, total viewership across all television was down 9 percent in September 2020, and 10 percent during prime time.
There are also standard cyclical trends that affected some sports. 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 N.B.A. and N.H.L., which typically end before the summer.
An unusually high number of games were also played early in the day — M.L.S. 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 have been played during the evening, they have 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 has also been increased competition within sports. The N.B.A. and N.H.L. normally have late spring to themselves. Baseball owns summer. The N.F.L. and college football dominate fall. Because of the abnormal schedules, however, their games were played simultaneously. On one Sunday in September, the N.F.L., N.B.A., M.L.B., N.H.L., M.L.S. and W.N.B.A. all had games — the first time that has happened.
“People’s ability to consume all that content doesn’t expand to meet the oversupply of events,” Mulvihill said. “If people were spending 80 percent less time watching sports in May, they don’t have the capability to watch 80 percent more in October.”
There are also smaller factors that are even harder to quantify. The N.H.L.’s conference finals featured four teams that were relatively unpopular. The N.B.A. 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.
A precise breakdown of how each of the above causes influenced viewership of each sport does not exist. But they help clarify an overall explanation.
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.
Did players protesting cause the N.B.A.’s ratings to decline?
There are a lot of people grafting their preferred political narrative onto the N.B.A.’s ratings decline. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, sparred with the Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban about ratings on Twitter. Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have talked about ratings for games on their shows, and it has been well covered by conservative media outlets.
There are a few problems with asserting that political or social justice stances have affected N.B.A. viewership. We don’t have great data on the issue; the data we do have does not suggest the N.B.A.’s political positioning is a major factor in its ratings decline; and those connecting the ratings with the demonstrations cite little more evidence than the ratings decline by itself.
Much of the polling on the issue is poorly done, but the main takeaway from the better polls is that there is little evidence fans are turning away from the N.B.A. for political reasons. A Marist College poll found the same number of basketball fans said “athletes speaking out on political issues” caused them to watch less as said it caused them to watch more. In a poll of U.S. consumers by Altman Solon, more people said athletes and leagues should speak out than those that said they should not.
Before the season was paused, registered Republicans made up 11 percent of ESPN’s N.B.A. viewership, while after it resumed they made up 10 percent, according to Nielsen Voter Ratings. Registered Democrats made up 28 percent of viewership before the pause, and 30 percent after the pause. A small percentage of Republicans stopped watching the sport, but by no means did they flee in droves.
The racial makeup of the N.B.A.’s audience also changed very little. According to the N.B.A., during the 2019 postseason its television audience was 45 percent white. During the 2020 postseason it was 44 percent white.
Also, nearly every other sport also saw huge declines even though they did not embrace demonstrations in the same way. As some people on social media joked after seeing the low ratings for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, did people turn off the television because the horses knelt during the national anthem?
It is also worth noting that the W.N.B.A. — a far more politically active league than the N.B.A. and one whose players have protested a team owner who is a Republican senator — has fared better than most leagues. While its ratings dropped 16 percent during the regular season, there was an increase in viewership compared with last year during the finals.
What does this mean for the future of sports?
Maybe something, maybe nothing. The sports and television executives we talked to 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.
Since July 23, baseball’s opening day, total televised live sports consumption is actually up seven percent compared with 2019. “If you look at the sport by sport comparisons it would paint a scary picture, but if you aggregate it all and count the total time people are watching sports, it is completely normal, nothing for our business to be worried about,”Mulvihill said.
Most leagues also have long-term contracts with television companies. The N.B.A.’s agreement with ESPN and TNT runs for another five seasons; no matter how many people watch, the league will receive $2.66 billion annually from those companies. M.L.B. even extended one of its television deals during the pandemic, which included a 45 percent higher payment.
If television ratings are still down across the board in a year, sports executives will be reaching for the panic button. But for now, like so many other things, chalk the ratings decline up as one of those 2020 oddities.