For anyone that keeps up with the usual numbers different sporting events pull on television, it’s no secret that the viewership has been declining lately. The major four US sports, the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL have all seen a decrease in viewership for their games, playoffs, and everything in between. According to the New York Times, this year’s NBA Finals were down 49%, regular season NFL games have been down 13%, and the Stanley Cup Finals were down a massive 61%. To understand why this is, we need to understand where the numbers are coming from.
Major networks don’t just get a number of how many people are watching their channel during a specific time on a certain day. To calculate viewership, they poll people in a small area and have access to what they are watching on their TVs. They use those numbers from the small sample size, and scale them up to the national level.
Ratings only matter depending on who you ask, but many people play it off and blame the pandemic for the drop. While COVID-19 has definitely contributed to why viewership has been so low lately, this has been the trend for years now. There are actually many reasons why ratings have fallen off over the last few years.
On Screen Product
This refers to the actual content that you see on television. Anything that you’re actually watching falls under this category. The reason this has been a factor in the ratings decline is because many people simply don’t like what they’re seeing anymore. Rule changes, performance of their teams, and pace of play have all deterred fans from watching televised games.
Pace of play is possibly the biggest reason that people don’t watch games from start to finish. Yes, team performance will affect your viewership, but not nearly as much as pace of play. The NBA has been severely hurt by stoppages, as they saw 48.1 fouls per game last year, up more than 2% from the previous year’s total. Nobody wants to watch a sloppy, foul-filled game in the NBA, especially not during the playoffs.
Of course the “bubbles” haven’t helped either. Some games have felt either flat or unimportant without an in-person attendance. It’s been a refreshing change to have a small number of fans at some NFL games, and the NLCS and World Series in Arlington. As expected though, viewership is still down from where it was last year and years before that.
The rise of streaming services also accounts for some of the major broadcaster’s ratings drop. Paid subscriptions to platforms like NFL Redzone, MLB.tv, NBA League Pass, and NHL.tv all take away viewers from the nationally broadcasted games.
While TV ratings are dropping, these streaming services are seeing an increase in viewership and subscriptions. The appeal here is instead of only being able to watch the locally broadcasted game, anyone can watch any game across the country. Channels like CBS still have a nationally broadcasted NFL game on Sunday, but people have been switching over to services like NFL Redzone to get commercial free coverage of every game, not just the one that’s on locally.
A small portion of the ratings drop also comes from people illegally streaming games, but it hasn’t proved to be a major factor in declining viewership.
Obviously, this is uncontrollable as there is always going to be something else to watch. From the news, political debates, reality TV, game shows or movies, sports won’t ever be the only thing on. The recent Presidential Debates are drawing massive numbers and have taken away viewers from Thursday Night Football and the NBA Playoffs.
The national networks can’t do anything about losing viewers to events of that caliber, but losing a few thousand viewers to something like college football or the local news can take away 4-5% of their ratings.
In terms of what effect this will have on the future of US sports, no one really knows. We could see some changes to national networks a few years down the line, or we might see nothing at all. We can only watch as networks study the analytics and pour money into getting the best ratings possible. At the end of the day, everything stems from money. Everyone is competing for network dominance and and at the end of the day, they’re trying to make the most money possible.
Photo credit: CBS Sports