TV Ratings Update – What is Affecting TV Ratings for Sports?

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By: Brian Gordon, Media Buying Supervisor

Here’s a good sports trivia question for you: what happened for the first time on September 10, 2020? The six largest sports leagues in the country (NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLS) all had games on the same day.

When the Coronavirus pandemic shut down production of television and movie programming, viewers and advertisers alike looked forward to the return of live sports. Many expected to see to these sports break out with record setting numbers, and while some sports have broken records, others have lagged behind expectations.

After all sporting events were cancelled because of the pandemic and new sports seasons started to approach, the questions arose, what will the NFL do? How about the NBA? Will fans be allowed to attend the games? What will games look like with no fans in attendance? The conventional wisdom was that TV ratings for sporting events would be up because they would be the only fresh programming available, and since no fans will would be at the games, they would all be at home watching. That was the natural and logical answer, but logical is not always what ends up happening. Although some sports’ seasons do overlap have overlapped at times, it is usually not to this degree. When they did have in the past, viewers have had to pick their favorite to watch live, and since. Since sports programming is
typically watched live, this has had a negative effect on various leagues ratings. NBA is one sport that is currently experiencing this phenomenon. On paper, a huge NBA matchup like the Lakers versus the Nuggets for the Western Conference Finals, should be a big draw for viewers. The since the Lakers are arguably one of the most followed franchises in the NBA, especially this year after the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant. But the Lakers-Nuggets game on Sunday, September 20th ran head-to-head against the Sunday Night Football game on NBC, and they NBA got destroyed in the ratings. The NBA game delivered just 3.17 million viewers, versus the football competition on NBC delivering 17.69 million viewers. This overlapping of gamedays/nights makes viewers pick their favorite since most viewers only watch one game at a time. But However, there were more factors at play in the diminished live sports ratings.

The big ratings leader in sports is the NFL, so media professionals closely -watched the NFL season’s launch and tried to determine what the season would look like. The NFL Season Kickoff game on NBC saw the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs take on the Houston Texans. The next day, the headlines the next day were about the dramatic decrease in ratings from the previous year, (down 16%), but they also stated that the ratings were down to a 10-year low. Definitely -not a good start for the NFL. Monday Night Football on ESPN also started their season off (down 17% from last year). In addition, NBC’s Sunday Night Football’s ratings were down, and, CBS’s Sunday football ratings were down 12%, ratings for the NFL were not starting off at a good pace like media professionals expected.

The return to play for MLB also saw has also seen an increase in ratings for games in the first few weeks, according to Nielsen. This increase was, driven by women viewers and younger viewers. Oddly enough, ratings for Men 55+ are down around 7%, potentially driven by the changes to the game this season which many fans say takes away some of the nostalgia of “America’s Game.”

Soccer is the game that has experienced some of the most important gains of the season, partly driven by the sport’s rise in popularity in recent years. The German Soccer League, Bundesliga, was the first league back, starting their season on May 16th and they saw that game being the most watched German League game ever on FOX Sports 1, attracting 365,000 viewers. The English Premier League also saw record viewership numbers, with their opening games averaging 462,000 viewers per match, the highest viewership since the 2015-2016 season. Their weekday afternoon games also saw record viewership, averaging 315,000 viewers, which shows a 30% increase over last season and before the shutdown. But, here in the U.S., the MLS returned to play seeing and saw ratings either flat to or down from last season. This was largely due to the low- stakes meaning of the games and the early morning game times to offset the high temperatures in Orlando, where all the games were played.

And finally, the College Football season started off with lower ranked teams facing off and that ultimately led to decreases in ratings over from last year. But with the launch of the SEC season, those ratings showed a turnaround. The first SEC game on CBS, game, Mississippi State versus the defending National Champions, LSU, delivered 4.4 million viewers, which was a 23% increase over a similar game last year, Alabama vs. Ole Miss. The SEC is one of the strongest conferences in College Football, so it is no surprise that viewers are tuning in for these key matchup games.

There are bright spots to these figures that can be translated into some key takeaways. One key takeaway is that the matchups matter. The week that one NFL game on FOX averaged 25.8 million viewers, which was up 7% from last year’s #1 Game 1 on FOX, which averaged 24.2 million viewers. This game was a battle of 2 of the League’s greatest QBs still playing, Drew Brees vs Tom Brady. This was Brady’s first game not in a Patriots jersey while playing in a new conference in a new state. Big matchups matter.

A second takeaway is that with the compressed seasons for many sports leagues, there is more competition for live viewers. Since 2020 is a Presidential Election year, sports are competing against news programming also. Ratings in 2016 against political programming also showed decreases, and with 2020 seeing high consumption of News programming from Covid-related news and political information, this is also affecting viewership for sporting events.

A third takeaway is that viewers are consuming media differently, and this can be seen in the way the ratings break out. More and more networks are pushing their streaming video platforms. NBC Sports has moved a majority of their popular Premier League soccer games to their Peacock streaming network, much to the dislike of fans who cannot access Peacock or can’t pay for another streaming option. MLB has seen increases in their streaming viewership numbers, especially in the Men 55+ demos, a. And ESPN airs many sports leagues and games on their ESPN+ platform and on their popular ESPN app. Today’s viewing options allow viewers to watch their favorite teams on their favorite platform. According to Nielsen, viewers still prefer to watch their content on their TV, and this figure is important with since more people are staying home during the pandemic. But if your favorite team or sports league is not available to watch in your area, the importance of streaming and alternate viewing options becomes more important to you.

Sports are still the most watched type of live programming, and when the matchups are big or pivotal, viewers find ways to watch them. Viewers in the U.S. watch NFL and College Football games the most, and the battles between top-ranked teams will still bring big ratings. Total viewers might be down year-over- year, but 2020 will forever go down as the year with the asterisk.

The Intermark Group Media Department analyzes these trends along with the psychology of people’s viewing habits to accurately project the audience of each media buy. News and Sports are key parts of our media buys because they deliver a loyal audience that tunes in live to watch. We still think live sports are still the place to be. And we will continue to look for games where there are key matchups, away from other key competition and we that utilize streaming, OTT and other multi-channel delivery options where cord-cutting viewers are consuming their media.