Eric Fisher | US sports television ratings outlook grows more muddled

SportBusiness' US Editor looks at how we should analyse television viewership in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic

Amid the compressed 2020 sports calendar that has been fundamentally readjusted due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the sports television ratings headlines are arriving even faster and more furiously than usual.

And within that torrent of data, there is growing industry concern that even top-tier American sports properties have shown marked broadcast audience softness. The National Hockey League ended its readjusted Stanley Cup Finals down by 62 per cent in viewership compared to 2019. The National Basketball Association was also down by 50 per cent for the NBA Finals through Game Three. Tennis’ US Open saw its viewership also fall by nearly half this year.

Even the mighty National Football League was down by 10 per cent in viewers through its fourth week of the 2020 season.

But what do any of those grim indicators really mean?

The short answer is that it is essentially impossible to know, certainly not anything definitive where meaningful, long-term conclusions can be drawn. And in an unprecedented year already filled with vexing questions, television audience measurement representing a key underpinning of the entire sports industry now finds itself, at least for the moment, considerably impaired.

None of the aforementioned properties and events, not to mention many other smaller ones, have faced remotely the kind of sports programming competition as they have this year with all of them now essentially happening on top of each other.

The NBA Finals, for example, is typically staged in June, facing no competition from first-run network entertainment programming, and for the most part battling only weekend golf and regular season Major League Baseball for sports viewership. By that point in the year, schools in many parts of the United States have also let out for the summer.

This year’s slotting of the NBA Finals, by contrast, was in an early fall-time period jam-packed with major sports competition, other network shows, new on-demand streaming options, and schools across the country in full flight, either in-person or virtually.

Similar stories can be told for other major events such as the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, each held in the springtime for more than a century, that were shifted this year to new dates later on the calendar and then saw ratings declines of more than 30 per cent.

The collective result immediately recalls the old trope of comparing apples and oranges. Rather than fruit, though, Fox Sports’ executive vice-president and head of strategy and analytics Mike Mulvihill, a longtime prominent voice on sports ratings, used pizza as his preferred food metaphor to help explain the pandemic-imposed programming glut and its impact on viewership.

“If you share a pizza with two friends every Saturday, but then one Saturday five friends show up, what do you personally get? Less pizza,” Mulvihill tweeted. “But what’s just as popular as it was a week ago? Pizza. That’s it. And now I’m hungry. #sportsisthepizza.”

The analytical difficulties for current sports TV ratings, however, go even further. There is, of course, the meaningful qualitative difference of seeing a playoff game on TV that is electric with energy from attending fans versus one staged in an empty venue with piped-in audio. That is precisely why World Wrestling Entertainment has moved to create its WWE Thunderdome, encircling the ring in a closed arena in Florida with virtual fans, in a bid to revive sagging ratings for some of its showcase programs.

Adding to all that are accelerating trends around consumer cord-cutting, likely amplified even further by pandemic-related economic hardships.

And then there is the impact of the chaotic American political scene amid the upcoming presidential election, with seismic news breaking in that space nearly every day. Cable news coverage is up by double-digit percentages, while recent candidate debates have generated viewership figures generally only seen by NFL playoff games and the Super Bowl.

These issues are precisely why the NFL recently sought to reassure team owners, reminding them in a memo that the league’s ratings have declined during each of the last six US presidential election cycles.

So does that mean we should ignore ratings data altogether until the pandemic is over and leagues are able to return to their normal calendars? Certainly not. Billions in advertising dollars are still spent every year around American sports, and all sorts of programming and marketing decision-making across the industry still relies heavily on those viewership numbers, and some smaller insights are still possible.

But the presence of all these historic anomalies does mean the absolute value of current TV ratings data is diminished until the industry returns to some sense of normality. Any recent in-venue attendance number, while interesting as more leagues and teams open their doors again to fans, doesn’t mean much of anything compared to prior years. TV ratings for now should be treated similarly.

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