Commentary

When Star Athletes Get Hurt, Viewership Could Take A Hit

How much does an individual star athlete means to their respective sports -- and its TV ratings? Examples are rare that just one athlete can be responsible for moving the needle -- up or down.

Within two days of each other, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors' basketball star Kevin Durant tore his right Achilles tendon -- a serious, potential career-ending injury. Chris Froome, multiple Tour de France road cycling champion, was involved in what one cyclist, riding just behind him, called a “horrific” accident.

U.S. sports fans have big familiarly with Durant. Froome? Not so much.

Froome has been a major cycling winner over the recent years, including four wins Tour de France, as well as other big races, including Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.

For his part, Durant has twice been MVP of the NBA Finals in 2018 and 2017 -- a major honor, in leading the Warriors to two championships in those years.

I bring up Durant and Froome’ severe injuries because they have been major superstars in their respective sports. Experts have suggested these unfortunate incidents might carry bigger weight. This includes fan engagement, and, of course, TV ratings.

Durant’s initial injury, to his right calf, came earlier in an NBA playoffs game, before the big NBA Finals. Then returning after more than a month layoff, during game five of the NBA Finals, he incurred the more the serious torn Achilles.

Froome’s injury also came prior to cycling’s big event of the year -- the Tour de France, which starts in a few weeks. His crash occurred while training for a stage in a pre-Tour de France week-long race, also in France, the Critérium du Dauphiné.

Froome sustained extensive injuries on a fast descent. He took his hands off his handlebars to blow his nose and out-of-nowhere strong gust of wind took out his front wheel, slamming him and his bike into a brick wall. He sustained a complex fracture to a femur, a broken elbow, broken ribs, fractures to his sternum and a vertebra.

Prognosis? Out for at least six months at minimum. Then a long rehabilitation. Few if any cyclists with such severe injuries have been known to come back. Froome is 34, going to be 35 next year, which, many say is “old” for cyclists. Only one cyclist in history has won a Tour de France who was older (36 years old).

Things might not be much better for Durant. He’ll be 31 in September, likely to miss the entire next season, according to many, which means mounting comeback at 33. From past experiences, experts says he’ll need an additional year to get back to full strength. He’ll be 34 then. 

Now, both team sports are filled with many other high-level, high-profile competitors.

In the NBA, we have LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) and Kawhi Leonard (Toronto Raptors), among dozens of others. Many high profile professional cyclists exist as well.

What does this have to do with the health of those sports on TV? Can any individual athlete affect their sport, especially a team sport?

Remember when Michael Jordan disappeared in his prime in 1993. He quit basketball after three championships to make it as a professional baseball player.  In particular, NBA Finals' ratings suffered. But those numbers rose when he came back (in 1995) to play for the Chicago Bulls, leading the team to three more championships.

More recently, golfer Tiger Woods won the Masters -- perhaps the most desired, honored professional golf event -- resulting in strong TV ratings — a Nielsen 10.8 million viewer number for the final round — but not a record number. Noted sports differences here: Professional golf is not a team sport.

One thing is for sure: As traditional broad-based TV content fractionalizes, including sports, around smaller audiences, many experts might ramp up expectations as to specific athletes' impact on traditional TV viewership.

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