TV Sports Are Coming Back, But Will Steep Ratings Declines Follow?

Will big sports leagues continue to be TV's savior — or something else?

On the heels of the just-completed NBA season in October, the league will start again on December 22 — with a 72-game season — just 10 games less than the standard 82-game season.

Considering all the discussion about the loss of TV advertising dollars, this would seem to be good news for the NBA — and the marketplace overall. NHL is looking at a similar time period — a January 1 start date, playing between 48 and 65 games.

Both leagues would shift from their usual October start. No matter — fan interest typically grows later on in the season, especially around playoff time.

TV networks that endured weak advertising in the second quarter due to the COVID-19 pandemic would seem to benefit.



TV advertising dollars came back in the third quarter with Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL and PGA golf. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that head-to-head action among all sports seems to stunt viewership. Ratings for MLB, NBA and NHL were down 30% to 50%.

This could be just a math problem, which will change when things get back to what is considered a normal schedule — especially with vaccines becoming available in late 2020 or early 2021.

Add this to the equation: The jury is still out on whether fans will be in the stands/arenas. The NHL is hoping that fans will gradually be able to make it back.

Arena “bubbles”  — created by the NBA and NHL to keep teams and players in a centralized location — worked amazingly well in keeping COVID-19 infections to a minimum.

At the same time, many analysts believe such moves took away the excitement and real-time engagement of live fans, including home sports TV viewers. One ESPN sports analyst said lesser focus and attention by athletes can contribute to no live fans in stadiums or arenas.

The same can’t be said about the NFL. Regular-season TV games have been down around 8% to 10% — a modest decline versus where other sports dropped.

For its part, the NFL has not had to deal with rescheduling games as other sports TV did.

Just a couple of years ago, NFL early- and regular-season games were down about the same level — 12% or so — causing panic. The No. 1 sport on TV and overall top TV program franchise — a bellwether of TV business indicators — was feared to be trouble.

The question for all sports going forward is: Will TV viewers return to pre-pandemic levels? Then ask yourself immediately afterwards: Are we being greedy?

1 comment about "TV Sports Are Coming Back, But Will Steep Ratings Declines Follow?".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 30, 2020 at 11:50 a.m.

    Wayne, an interesting subject. What usually happens when some form of entertainment begins to lose its appeal---for a variety of reasons---is that people  who were once frequent users---or, in the case of TV sports, viewers---begin to reduce their frequency. In other words, for a while---often a fairly long while---total reach remains about the same but frequency declines---hence you see average minute losses for sports continuing but total season reach levels remaining close to previous levels. The cure, when this pattern begins to manifest itself, is to make changes while there is still time and once loyal viewers are still tuning in from time to time. Perhaps new rules to shorten the games might work or some other significant change in the rules could make a difference---but something that is easily noticed and offers an improvement is desperately needed. Will the TV sports moguls---or the players' leagues---- get this and act while they have the opportunity to turn things around? That's the $64 question.

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