Will sports marketing become a victim of the pandemic?

Photo: Getty Images/Marcos Calvo
Nov 23, 2020

A sharp descent in sports event viewership ratings has led to concerns that live sports will land among the pandemic’s casualties.

Ratings for the recent NBA finals tumbled 49 percent, the NHL finals plunged 61 percent and MLB’s World Series sunk 32 percent. Golf, tennis, horse racing and other sports also suffered steep declines.

Among the explanations being offered:

  • News distractions: Cable news ratings have soared due to coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. election.
  • Cannibalization: Events from the NBA, NHL, MLB and a host of others all competed against each with their summer restarts.
  • Timing: The radically changed schedules, including the late summer placements of the NBA and NHL playoffs, as well as daytime games, felt unnatural for viewers.
  • Player politics: Some have charged that the NBA’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice messaging turned off viewers, even though sharp declines were seen across many major sports.
  • Lack of fans: The absence or scarcity of fans in the stands may have dulled the excitement around watching events.

Whatever the reason(s), stay-at-home behavioral changes have left some wondering how quickly and to what degree fans will return to watching sports.

“This familiar, linear nature of our lives has been interrupted,” Dennis Deninger, a professor in sports communications at Syracuse University, told USA Today. “In the first six months of 2020, Netflix added 5.2 million new homes subscribing in the United States and brought their total to almost 73 million. They don’t have any sports. Regardless of how your schedule has been upended, you can watch what you want when you want and escape into fiction.”

Encouragingly, NFL games are only down six percent across television and digital platforms after a slow start, according to the league and Nielsen. Reflecting the allure of the real-time action of sports, all but four of the top 30 shows since the season began in September have been NFL games. College football has also turned positive in recent weeks.

NBC Sports Group chairman Pete Bevacqua told The Associated Press, “Now that the election [story] is nearing an end I think people will go back to kind of normal consumption patterns. So we think we have weathered the storm.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think are the factors driving the viewership ratings declines as sporting events returned? Are the declines more of an anomaly or do they underscore longer-term risks facing sports viewership and related marketing?

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"As pro leagues create safe, restrictive bubbles and the election has ended, fans may return to sports to meet their deep need for community."

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17 Comments on "Will sports marketing become a victim of the pandemic?"

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David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
2 years 2 months ago

The lack of ability for fans to see at least some games in person is one of the biggest contributors to the lack of interest in and viewership of sporting events. When you go to some of the games, it creates more of an emotional bond with the team. Another factor contributing to the lack of viewership is the sports that have shortened their seasons. With a shorter season, fans don’t feel that the championships are as important or credible. Personally, as a big baseball fan, these reasons dramatically decreased my viewership and I didn’t even watch one playoff or World Series game this fall. It is sad for sports, but hopefully once social distancing is not an issue, we can return to full stadiums and fans will begin watching more sports on TV.

Dr. Stephen Needel

While some of these factors may be important, to me (as a former hockey player and lifelong Bruins fan) it was the low quality of play. The games looked like pre-season scrimmage level rather than Stanley Cup playoff teams. We’re seeing the same thing in the NFL – teams were not prepared for the start of the season. When I’m bored with a Falcons or Patriots game, because of the low quality of play, there’s something wrong and that’s going to carry over for the whole season.

Rodger Buyvoets

NBA is usually a winter-watching sport, the NFL is autumn, and baseball dominates summer, but this year they were all being played at the same time. It’s no wonder sports viewership declined, purely on a logistical basis. Many NBA games were also played during the day when people were working. But marketers shouldn’t read too much into it. There are standard cyclical trends that affect sports – people often watch less TV in the summer, for example. In the U.S., more people were watching the elections this past month.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
2 years 2 months ago

Initially it was because fans did not want to be preached to by players on politics and that was a big turn off, but then I believe it changed. Every sport is on now at the same time, there are no fans in the stands, and it is really hard to get excited about sports games. Additionally, a lot of people I talk to aren’t taking the season and playoffs as legitimate. The lack of viewership definitely will cause marketing to take a hit. It will be a while before all this gets back on track.

Gene Detroyer

The realization is when one breaks a habit, new habits form. How much of sports viewing and following had become simply a thoughtless habit?

I am a baseball fan (big Yankees fan). Up until this year, my go-to TV show in the evening was a baseball game. This summer I watched a couple of in-season games, a couple of playoff games and no World Series games. Will I go back in 2021? I am trying to think why I would. Was my go-to viewing of baseball simply a habit?

I have watched a couple of quarters of NFL (a couple quarters, not games). I found better things to do on Sunday afternoon. I’ve watched no college football (and I played football in college).

Overall sports has had a demographic problem for several years, with younger generations foregoing the fanaticism of us elder fans. I believe we will see a bounce back in 2021. However I don’t think sports or those products that revolve around big-name sports will return to their heyday.

Lisa Goller

The pandemic profoundly tackled the sports industry.

Watching games from home is less thrilling and social than being surrounded by energetic fans in a packed stadium or sports bar. Job losses and less disposable income may have motivated consumers to cut cable costs, including live sports.

Concurrent vs. staggered seasons meant choosing among favorite leagues rather than spreading viewership out all year. While the NFL schedule stayed on track, NBA games in August were (my dream come true and) competition for outdoor leisure activities.

As pro leagues create safe, restrictive bubbles and the election has ended, fans may return to sports to meet their deep need for community.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
2 years 2 months ago

Certainly an anomaly – and I think it has had less to do with the election and much more to do with an unusual (shortened) season and retrofitted playoff structure (for hockey and baseball). Many casual fans saw this season as an *asterisk season which didn’t hold as much meaning. Football has been the best equipped for TV viewership for quite a long time, but even more so now in a time where many people’s schedules have been disrupted – football is holding its regular 16 game season, with games at the same starting times as always, and every game matters so much that the stakes (and viewership) stay high. Plus with the gambling industry and the fantasy sports trend more developed in football, there are reasons for non-allegiant fans to still consume the product.

Gary Sankary

The pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends – and the decline of sports viewing is just one more. The NFL, NBA and MLB have been struggling with ratings for a while now. I believe that casual fans are finding other things to capture their interest, and these days there’s a lot of options. I also believe the pandemic has affected even hard core fans – it’s difficult to connect with a game when there’s no cheering in the stands, the quality of play has been suspect and you never know what roster is going to be available.

Watching the Masters in November didn’t really resonate. The NBA finals felt like a weird reality program. Finally, seeing my college football team cancel games at the last minute — it’s hard to stay interested.

Al McClain

All of the above, in terms of reasons for the decline. Personally, sports haven’t been enough of a distraction from the election chaos and tragedy of the pandemic. So, I either watch news to see what’s happening, or get involved in some new series on Netflix, which provides a more complete distraction. Watching a game on TV, the distractions include artificial crowd noise, empty or near empty stands, and discussions of how many players have tested positive and which games are cancelled.. Shortened seasons and out of season leagues and events means all sports in the covid era will have asterisks attached to them. By next fall, things should be back to semi normal, I sure hope.

Joel Rubinson

“Victim of the pandemic” implies something permanent. No, COVID-19 will not have a permanent effect. Once the sports seasons return to normal, and fans are in the stands again, things will get back to where they were. Hopefully we will become less polarized as a nation as I do believe that politicizing via demonstrations on the field and bizarre statements by athletes takes its toll and that might be a more permanent turnoff for some.

Michael La Kier

The pre-pandemic model of escalating contracts and fees for sports was unsustainable. Post-pandemic, sports (like all industries) face a reckoning based on their business model’s new reality. With changes to seasons and schedules wreaking havoc on sports, many viewers figured out they have better things to do than keep up with the everchanging seasons that may not “count” in their eyes.

Steve Montgomery

There are many factors that likely contributed to the decline in viewership. These include the fact that every sport has had to make changes in when and/or where they played. Playing all the games in one place removed the “home town” or regional impact on viewership. COVID-19 also impacted which members of the team that were available to play a particular games or games. Viewers might have said why bother, they don’t have their best players.

Another factor was the lack of excitement due to games having no or an extremely limited number of fans on hand. An example of this was the Masters. Not only was it played at a very different time of the year, but the roars of the crowd weren’t there. Last but certainly not least is the impact of COVID-19 on the fans, their family and friends, which makes it hard to get excited about sports.

Perry Kramer

Individual sports viewership levels may never return to where they were pre-pandemic. All of the points made are contributing to the decline in viewership. However one of the most important is that sports, for a significant percentage of the population, are mostly seen as entertainment and a way to escape the daily grind. The change in timing has created a saturation of events that combined with the increase in societal issues in sports will continue to be directly related to the decline in viewership. There will always be a core fan base that thrives, but the very significant next level down will continue to decrease due to a loss in the overall entertainment value.

James Tenser

It is interesting that a cooped-up audience hungry for normality would still act indifferently about the promised diversion of live sports. There may be a sense among consumers at the moment that sporting events attended by cardboard cutouts and backed by canned crowd noises can’t possibly “count” as much as events with real roaring crowds.
I still watched the baseball post-season closely this year and I enjoy pro football, so I have tried to ignore the feeling of unreality that pervades sports broadcasts these days. (Not to mention the unreality that has also pervaded work, home life and politics in the media.)

Sports marketers have to consider how they might restore “normal” interest levels to their events and how long that will take. Advertisers who count on reaching and cultivating sports audiences will try to keep the momentum going if they can, until people are able to gather in crowds again.

Harley Feldman

The biggest issues for sports viewership declines have been the non-traditional scheduling of major sports, the election, and not having fans in the stands. The NFL has become more successful because the timing of its games has not changed much. However, not having fans in the stands makes the games a bit less exciting.

There is always be the risk of over saturation, and some sports will have a hard time recovering from the pandemic. Each sport will need to nurture young people to want to participate and follow which will insure more of its future.

Ricardo Belmar
The pandemic has caused significant disruption to everyone’s lives, but the strongest disruption has to be around people’s emotional responses. Entertainment has shifted from something meant to either divert or pump adrenaline-inspired emotions into pure escapism from the everyday negative realities of the pandemic and what it has done to the world around us. News has gone to primarily negative activity, so people have turned to their entertainment as a form of escape. The fact is, sports just aren’t doing that when the stands are empty in the stadium, the season is out of place, and the level of play has suffered. Instead, what has become popular? Binging movies and shows on Netflix and other streaming media where one can just forget the outside world for a while. Marketers have had to adjust for this as well, and shift to supporting those services in some way. The more consumers shift to ad-free streaming media, the harder it will be for marketers to get consumer attention. Will this trend continue post-pandemic? Somewhat, yes, but I expect… Read more »
Rachelle King
Nothing is normal or predictable anymore. Few things are as normal and predictable as Monday Night Football. Yet, when normal is erased from our lives, as much as we want to cling to the familiar, we are finding the need to cling to each other even more. And suddenly, the things that didn’t seem to matter as much, actually do. Life-threating situations have a way of bringing things into perspective and this is reflected now in viewership of spectator sports. Notwithstanding the obvious burn out from 8-months of quarantine, many are zoom zombies by 5pm and can’t take one more screen, kids don’t leave the house so 24/7 parenting takes on a new meaning and many are finding out that working from home means you work more, not less. These are all obvious headwinds but there is also an underlying factor. Ultimately, Sports is a community event. It’s a few hours of brotherhood, allyship, camaraderie, socializing and trash talking–none of which are fun by yourself or just your immediate family. When normal returns to normal,… Read more »
"As pro leagues create safe, restrictive bubbles and the election has ended, fans may return to sports to meet their deep need for community."

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