The Rob Brown Show, 12-3PM on ESPN Upstate

Sports ratings are down - but why?

Social activism might play a role, but only a small one.

The Rob Brown Show
October 28, 2020 - 3:50 pm

There's no doubt that 2020 has been a wild year so far. Continents on fire, a global pandemic, and a United States Presidential election that will likely to be the most consequential since the 1940's. And, to say that all of us have suffered at least somewhat would be, I don't think, all that much of a stretch.

Also suffering from the year 2020 are sports as a whole - at least in terms of television viewership. Ratings are down for just about every sport, including the NFL. For the NBA and MLB, those ratings came down by double-digits, which has raised large questions about the viability of those sports as we know them to this point.

But, there's one predominant question about those ratings: why? Do we care less about sports now? Are the way those sports present themselves becoming less acceptable to us? Could the social just protests within them truly be damning them to falling in popularity?

Let's take a look at some of the reasons I believe sports are struggling to get eyeballs on television.

First, the theory I seem to be hearing predominantly from older fans: the calls for social activism that have been so predominantly presented by players and leagues since the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are driving away those spectators who want their sports to be presented without any political or social commentary attached.

I'm sure that there is some small percetange of those lost viewers who have walked away because of it. I see plenty of people on my social media feeds saying that they have tuned out. But, I don't suspect this is anywhere close to the largest reason that audiences have tuned out. 

Let's go back to 2016. Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time, and a large conservative portion of the country began to talk about boycotting the NFL. There's no doubt their reaction was a loss to the league - television viewership fell around 8% from 2016 to 2017. But, according to a Sports Illustrated article from that year, many television execs are divided as to just how big of an impact it truly made. To me, if TV executives, who all they can to understand and correct any ratings decline, can't agree on what caused it, than it may indeed be a factor, but is likely not the primary cause.

So, with the ever increased refusal of athletes and leagues to "stick to sports," how big of an impact might those who truly, honestly boycott, have?

To answer that, let's take a look at all of the other factors I believe are pitching in.

First off, and what I feel is likely the most impactful cause of the ratings decline of 2020: there is a LOT going on. As I mentioned, this Presidential election is being labeled the most impactful of our recent history. Combine that with a global pandemic that has impacted all of us in ways that could not have been foreseen, and mix it in wildfires raging across the west and an unreasonable number of hurricanes battering the south, mixed with the protests and social justice movements impacting the entire country, and to those who are not hardcore fans, sports seems trivial. Does a baseball game matter all that much with protestors marching in cities across the country? Is an NFL game really a priority with the third hurricane in three months steaming towards the Gulf Coast? Are you really worried about a basketball game if your state is being threatened by infernos ? Of course not. Sports is a big part of our culture, but ultimately, they are just games, and games become a low priority when lives are being impacted, and threatened every single day.

Second, and a reason with much less important, is the scheduling conflict of having so many sports on at once. During the return from the Coronavirus shutdown, just about every sport was on at once. MLB, NBA, NFL, MLS, PGA, USTA ... all of it was taking place at the same time on different channels. Way more events were available, with only so many fans to spread around. With many more options, those numbers were obviously going to spread themselves out across all events. Then, consider sports fatigue. There aren't very many of you in my situation - where watching sports is an obligation. So, if there's a Thursday night that saw the opening round of a major golf tournament, a Thursday night NFL game, an MLB playoff game, and the night coverage of a major tennis event taking place, you're likely going to select one or two of those events at most. You're not watching them all. And, of course, that doesn't mention Friday events, followed by college football on Saturday, an NFL slate on Sunday... at some point, you're just unable to watch them all. Sports fatigue is real.

Next, there's streaming services. They're everywhere, and, frankly, many of them don't requie you to pay. Not that I know this from experience, but there are countless websites available to you that can pull games from without having to pay a monthly subscription costs. Those numbers obviously aren't included in the ratings, and there's no way to tell how many viewers are there instead of watching on the formats that capture ratings.

The final reason I believe people are out is one I don't have as much evidence for, but after talking with a few friends, I believe is just as much of a factor - the psychological impact on the way sports is presented during the pandemic. Let's be honest with each other - even when the event is as big as the World Series, watching games with no fans in the stands doesn't press on us the importance of that game as much as a sold out, raving crowd does. 

You're flipping channels on a Thursady night. On one, you stumble across two respectable Sun Belt teams - Appalachain State and Louisiana. These are a pair of teams that have been fighting to stay inside the top 25, and may or may not ultimately have an impact on top tier bowl games. There are roughly 30,000 for that Sun Belt game. On another channel, a lower tier SEC game is taking place, let's say Arkansas hosting Mizzou. While those two teams won't sniff the top 25, there are over 70,000 fans inside the stadium calling the Hogs. While one game is significantly more important to college football, the other just looks more exciting. Most fans will stay with the bigger game, that's just a reality.

Well, the same impact on your viewing preference in that comparison is in play with limited crowds during the pandemic - when you tune into an NLCS game and see zero fans in the stands, it just doesn't feel the same - and the demand to watch doesn't push you into sticking around.

I'm not saying that social justice protests didn't have an impact, and frankly, it might just be impossible to determine which of those factors has the most control over the declining ratings.

I'm saying that 2020 is weird, y'all. And it's impacting the way everything is effected - sports is not alone in that fact.

But, if we handle our business, the world will go back to normal. Sports will go back to normal. And we'll get to watch them like we want.



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