Sports has a serious problem.
Ratings are historically down across the board in 2020, with the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL all cratering in the viewership department.
While the popularity of sports – in terms of broadcast numbers – has been waning over the last decade, the year-over-year losses suffered by every major American league are aberrant. They have, in short, significantly accelerated that negative trend.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals – featuring the sport’s biggest superstar playing for the league’s most storied franchise – was the lowest-rated Finals game since 1994. Game 2 followed that up by being the lowest rated NBA Finals contest of all time.
Game 3 followed that up, setting a new record for Nielsen futility. Overall, the NBA’s ratings are down roughly 45 percent since 2012, but this year has seen a historic jump in that very wrong direction.
Similarly, the National Football League has experienced a shocking loss in traction.
The most valuable sports imprint in America – and one of the biggest in the world – saw its 2020 season-opening weekend record a whopping 30% loss in viewership compared to Week 1 in 2019. Every week since has seen drops across all markets, with an aggregate drop over the first seven weeks of around 10 percent.
The MLB – which was interrupted by COVID-19 to a greater degree than the NBA or NFL (which was only impacted in the offseason, as the 2020 NFL season actually started on time as scheduled pre-pandemic) – fielded expanded playoffs, made significant rule changes to drive up interest (like allowing the NL to use designated hitters), and was actually producing exciting baseball.
Nevertheless, this year’s Major League Baseball ratings are also in the toilet.
Despite the 2020 season opener pulling in more viewers than any other opener in nine years, the closer has blown the lead. The MLB – particularly its flagship Sunday Night Baseball lineup – lost 30 percent of its viewers on the season.
The NHL, which is historically the lowest rated of the major American sports (though exceptionally popular regionally), recently concluded its 2020 Stanley Cup Finals.
This year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs were down 28 percent year over year, a precipitous fall that didn’t get any better when the Dallas Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning faced off for Lord Stanley’s coveted trophy.
Meanwhile, the just-concluded World Series – which saw the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the most popular franchises in baseball, finally win the title after several recent heartbreaks – was the least-watched MLB championship series in the modern TV era.
Last year’s Game 7 garnered 23 million viewers, while the ratings for this year’s Game 6 closeout drew a miserable 12.6 million, cementing the 2020 World Series its GOAT status as the WOAT.
So, why is all this happening?
And more importantly, what can be done to reverse the trend?
To answer the first question, there are three competing or overlapping theories.
The Coronavirus Pandemic
Instinctually, many analysts and pundits in the mainstream media are eager to attribute this massive decline in viewership to things such as the coronavirus pandemic.
And there is some merit to that.
The coronavirus caused a literal mid-season cessation in play for both the NBA and NHL. It pushed MLB Opening Day four months down the calendar. It preempted a meaningful NFL preseason, which is often a hype machine for the league.
It’s a factor.
And even worse, it could be a persistent one.
With all the COVID-19 lockdowns and job losses associated with the pandemic, American sports fans had their lives upended and their routines dismantled in 2020.
Many likely found other hobbies in the meantime, diminishing the comparative value of sports’ eventual return. Binge-watching streaming media changed the daily schedules for couples and families nationwide, making sports less pressing.
On the other end of the spectrum, countless parents grew more accustomed to spending time with their children away from the living room, playing outside and participating in bonding activities that weren’t predicated on televised sporting events.
In short, people were given other things to do, and many of them liked it. Sports got replaced by things that were actually available.
Now that sports is available again, a large swath of more casual viewers probably just don’t care.
Another wrinkle: With leagues trying to maximize the calendar and finish out their 2020 campaigns so their 2021 seasons can start on time, many games were being held at unusual times. This can also account for some of the ratings troubles facing the industry.
Another argument for why sports ratings are suffering has to do with the growing prevalence of cord-cutting.
Of course, that would be a better argument if all the leagues didn’t have inexpensive and often free viewing options on the most popular streaming platforms.
Plus, ratings methodologies have adapted over the last several years to account for viewers using these alternate channels. Cord-cutting, after all, is not a new concept, and television networks have been working for years to produce streaming imprints and exclusives to give viewers a la carte options.
Additionally, regardless of what service or services viewers use in lieu of traditional cable and satellite television, each of these offers subscription plans that allow them to watch all the local and national sports they’re used to at a reduced cost compared against expensive TV subscriptions that used to be the de facto standards.
In short, there are now more ways than ever for fans to watch their favorite games. Cord-cutting should not lead to a decline in ratings, it should lead to a significant ratings boom.
And again, these numbers are tracked religiously, with cord-cutters catered to at great expense by all the advertisers, networks, and leagues in question.
Cord-cutting might play a part, but it’s very much a bit part in a much larger discussion.
The Politics Problem
Arguably the biggest factor going against professional sports viewership in 2020 is that these institutions have been inundated with politics. And as with any offensive, it’s happened on two fronts.
The first front that must be assessed in driving reduced sports ratings is the absolute 24/7 media blitz surrounding the 2020 Presidential election.
People are distracted, certainly, and a nightly news addiction – fueled by the Bad Orange Man and Creepy Joe and a panel of talking heads that never ever shut up – make it difficult for more casual sports fans to tune out the chatter.
If there’s an existential crisis brewing on Fox News or CNN, tonight’s game might be less important in comparison.
But viewed in light of the other political issues plaguing these leagues, the Presidential election isn’t the chief culprit, either.
The chief culprit is politics itself.
In the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, a socially distanced and out-of-work nation was pushed over the edge by significant social unrest.
Daytime protests and nighttime riots have engulfed dozens of big cities for months, all in the nebulous name of “social justice.” America, today, is boiling over with racial tension.
Between the BLM movement and the so-called 1619 Riots, many Americans see a much-needed revolution unfolding in the streets. Criminal justice reform, equality, social and economic equity, and other important issues are – in their minds – being brought to the forefront.
However, just as many Americans see these movements as sanctioned violence against traditional American cultural values, a vilification of police, a direct assault on law and order, and a communist co-opting of an important public discussion.
To the latter point, BLM itself openly declares itself a communist revolutionary entity, which probably doesn’t help their cause in changing hearts and minds.
America is as polarized as it’s been in 150 years, and as a result, it needs sports like never before.
The problem, of course, is that sports has decided to shirk its purpose as an escape from the outside world and has picked a side.
And every league picked the same one.
In doing so, it’s not a stretch to say that they alienated half of their fan bases.
This is the second front of the offensive, and it is far more offensive.
Now, this isn’t to say that corporate organizations like sporting leagues should stay out of the fray.
As multibillion-dollar brands with lots of commercial clout, they have countless avenues to push any discussion they please in any direction they wish.
Unfortunately, however, they chose to push that discussion directly on the fields, diamonds, courts, and rinks of play themselves.
Entire teams – entire leagues – are participating in social justice messaging, supporting organizations that many of their now-erstwhile fans find opprobrious.
In the case of the NFL, they’re putting the names of alleged victims of alleged crimes – many of whom seem to be criminals themselves – on their helmets and locking hands in pre-game solidarity with a movement half their fans don’t support.
NBA teams changed out their jerseys for various commercialized social justice slogans, many of which have negative connotations due to their origins and the people pushing these movements behind the scenes.
Baseball players were taking the “America” out of “America’s Pastime,” and hockey players were kneeling for the American national anthem but standing for the Canadian one.
Not everyone in America hates America, which is something these leagues – and most players save but a tiny fraction – don’t seem to understand.
None of this had to happen, but it all happened, and all at once.
Whatever your politics happen to be, whether you believe that these millionaire celebrity athletes are truly aggrieved and speaking out for the betterment of society or that they’re all a bunch of opportunistic hypocrites elevating themselves for personal gain, is irrelevant.
This is sports, not politics.
This is sports, not society.
This is sports, not “the real world.”
Sports has always been a refuge from politics, a relief from the ails of society, a safe retreat from the trials and tribulations of the real world.
The purpose of sports is that it has always served as an escape for the masses. The concept is as old as time. “Bread and circuses” comes to mind.
Sports is supposed to give us a reprieve – a short, fleeting break – from all the stuff that bears on our shoulders, from the burdens each of us endures on a daily basis just trying to make ends meet.
And that’s what sports is good at.
But more than that, sports is naturally inclusive. It is divisive only in the realms of its fandom, where Yankees fans hate Red Sox fans and nobody can stand Tom Brady.
But as a whole, sports – more than literally any other enterprise on the planet – fundamentally represents actual, factual, empirical, undebatable equality. Within the rules of the game, the players play, and their abilities – compared directly against those of their peers – determine the outcomes.
When two players go head to head, or two teams take to the clay or the ice or the field or the hardwood, we expect to see the same rules for everyone. And, unless you’re a Saints fan or a Sixers fan, you probably do.
Sports is the only thing in the world that is completely based on equality. Yes, winners and losers emerge, but their opportunities are equal (barring the occasional bad call), and they win or lose in an environment that supported them both equally.
Sports is a welcome disconnect, not a political debate.
People will tune in for the former, but they’ll tune out for the latter.
How Can Sports Be Saved?
Of course, there is a solution, and – unless something changes in a hurry – it’s the only thing that’s going to save sports:
If fans can no longer enjoy sports as an escape – if they will no longer be given the grace of having an impartial, neutral refuge where they can forget about their lives for a few hours a few times a week – scores will tune them out forever, and the rest might grow weary of the product (or be too small in number to sustain it).
However, because legal sports betting is so popular – because some 40 million Americans alone bet on sports each year – these leagues will always have a market with them.
Bettors may not watch the games themselves, which is problematic, but with live in-game sports betting fast becoming the most exciting way to wager, these leagues can count on those eyeballs if nothing else.
This is a less-than-ideal solution, to be sure.
The obvious thing to do – something that even the commissioner of the NBA sees as self-evident – is to get rid of the incessant and overbearing social justice messaging in between the lines.
Adam Silver, who just presided over the most dramatic popularity collapse in NBA history, was short and to the point when recently asked about next season’s approach to “messaging.”
In a Finals Week appearance on ESPN’s NBA Countdown program, Silver didn’t mince words:
“I would say, in terms of the messages you see on the court and our jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time when we began these discussions with the players and what we all lived through this summer. My sense is there will be somewhat of a return to normalcy, that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor.”
If this movement hadn’t torpedoed the brand, Silver doesn’t make this comment. The acknowledgment means that the biggest issue – of all those mentioned above – is unquestionably the hyperpoliticization of the institution of sports.
But again, that reversal – even if all the leagues follow suit – may not be enough. They will have to give their viewers more of a reason to tune in. To save their bottom lines, they’ll have to give viewers and former fans a way to bolster their own bottom lines.
Betting is the only meaningful way to do that.
Going forward, it should surprise absolutely nobody if the leagues that fought against the legalization of sports betting – the leagues that openly opposed the Supreme Court overturn of the PASPA sports betting ban in 2018 – will now do a 180 (much like Silver above) and openly lobby states sitting on the fence to legalize the pastime ASAP.
People can take unpleasantness and abuse if they’re personally profiting from it. Otherwise, with no such succor to counterbalance said abuse, they’ll find other things to spend their time and money on.
But even that constitutes a long road ahead, and one that’s rife with uncertainty. States have been relatively slow to adopt new sports betting legislation, and fewer than a third of them have active sportsbooks in operation today.
Many of those states don’t even allow mobile sports betting, forcing bettors to travel to and line up at brick-and-mortar venues to place their wagers.
In the immediate aftermath of legalized sports betting – or, more aptly, the federal decriminalization of sports betting – the biggest leagues have, in one way or another, signed small sponsorship deals with sportsbooks or betting advertisers.
Again, that may not be enough.
To really make waves, to really bring back an alienated but possibly forgiving fanbase, professional sports organizations will have to get involved in the betting market itself.
Conflicts of interest aside (and there are ways to combat even those – except perhaps in boxing), pro clubs and their leagues should embrace betting to the extent that they themselves promote it, facilitate it, and profit directly from it.
In other words, sports leagues need to become sportsbooks.
Or the book will close on them for good.