Sports fans: Where have they gone?

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(This first appeared on the BTP United website.)

Much has been made of the break in professional sports between March 11th, when the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the sports world began its shutdown, and July 23rd, when the MLB season began. Sports fans were left out in the cold. Or lockdown.

The shutdown affected essentially every aspect of the sports landscape, from the cancellation of March Madness to the rescheduling of the Masters from April to November.

What has been talked about less frequently is the decrease in fans’ viewership since sports returned. From the Stanley Cup Finals to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, the viewership of most sporting events has decreased more than 25%, according to an analysis done by sportsmediawatch.com.

In fact, total television viewership has been down during the pandemic. According to the New York Times, viewership was down 9% in September from the previous year, including a 10% drop in primetime. 

So, what does this mean going forward? Well, we don’t know yet. This is the first time that sports broadcasts have been significantly affected by a pandemic. In all likelihood, several factors will influence the industry in the future.


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While in theory, viewership of television will return to normal levels after the pandemic ends, as attention will no longer be centered on COVID-19, the changes that have occurred over the past eight months may remain in some capacity. For example, working remotely, cooking more, and spending more time with family or outside may be changes that are fully embraced. 

But there are certainly some aspects of life and sports consumption that will revert to previous norms. Even before the pandemic is over, likely by the end of this year, sports schedules will have largely returned to their previous time frames; the NBA will be in full swing, with the College Football Playoff and the Super Bowl following in January and February, respectively.

These events will begin to allow for some scheduling normalcy in that they will line up with viewers’ expectations, and this should continue as 2021 progresses, with events like the Kentucky Derby once again held in May and MLB playing from April through October.

This more normal schedule leads to another positive change: there will be less overlap in sports. For example, the MLB Wild Card and Division Series were played at the same time as the NBA Finals. Due to the fact that these sports will be played at their usual times, this should no longer be an issue.

Another reason for the decrease in sports viewership is not pandemic-related at all. Given that there was a Presidential election in 2020, and a very contentious one at that, some viewers were engaged in politics instead of sports.

This is not uncommon in election years; for example, in every election year since at least 1996, there has been at least a 2% decrease in NFL viewership from the previous year, according to Sports Illustrated. So, even if the pandemic were to have a significant effect on sports and sports broadcasting next year, one could potentially expect an increase in ratings simply because it is not an election year.

Moving forward, it is not easy to predict what sports viewership will be like. Will the pandemic merely be a large blip on the ratings radar, or will sports fans be impacted for a long time? Either way, there should be a greater sense of normalcy in 2021.

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Matt Burr plays a key project management role for Chicago-based agency BTP Unite. He earned his Masters of Integrated Marketing Communications from Medill School at Northwestern University.




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