Weaponizing ratings slips has become a hallmark of Trump-era Republicans, who routinely blame low viewership on the athletes and leagues that speak out about social issues. This year’s historically bad NBA playoffs viewership — the Finals fell about 50 percent from last season — were gleefully noted by President Trump and across conservative media, from Fox News’s Laura Ingraham to the Daily Wire to Breitbart. Their rallying cry: “Get woke, go broke.”
But viewership of major sporting events is down across the board, including in leagues with no social-justice messaging to speak of. According to data compiled by Sports Media Watch, golf’s U.S. Open was down 42 percent. The Kentucky Derby: 43 percent. The Stanley Cup finals: 61 percent. The vaunted NFL is down 13 percent early in its season. MLB’s division series were down 40 percent. A World Series between, potentially, Atlanta and Tampa Bay isn’t likely to change the tide.
Several factors are fueling the drop, according to viewership data and interviews with TV executives and industry observers: the intensity of the political news cycle, a glut of sports on TV and viewers’ lives being upended by the pandemic. A new survey shows some Republicans say they’re tuning out over social-justice messaging, but the data tells a different story.
“We just believe so strongly that the whole business of sports fuels social connection and is fueled by social connection,” said Mike Mulvihill, head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports. “For obvious reasons, our whole environment of social connection is completely inside out. So sports and the ability of sports to act as a unifying force is really undermined.”
Added Cary Meyers, ESPN’s senior vice president for research and insights: “What we’re seeing is casual fans are having a hard time putting other things aside. And, obviously, there is also cable news.”
Can’t watch them all
As the NBA prepared to return in July, with hockey, baseball, football and other sports on the horizon, networks predicted pent-up demand for live sports. ESPN touted a poll in which a majority of fans said they planned to watch as much as they could when sports returned, noting a renewed appreciation for the role of sports in their lives.
And, as usual, sports still rule live television: All but one of the top 40 rated programs of the previous week were sports or news, with “Saturday Night Live” the only entertainment property in the mix, Mulvihill pointed out on Twitter.
Still, overall sports viewership will be down from a normal year, when sports are spread more evenly across the calendar. According to Meyers, 92 percent of sports fans are tuning in more often and for longer durations this year compared with last, apparently turning the condensed sports calendar into a quarantine coping mechanism. But they can’t get to everything.
“You have an oversupply of premium events,” Mulvihill said. “It’s causing the total pool [of consumption] to not be affected that much. But on a sport-by-sport basis, everyone suffers.”
The other 8 percent are casual fans, Meyers said, who simply aren’t watching this year. Fans tuning out cite several factors, according to a recent survey by the Marist Center for Sports Communication. Thirty-five percent blamed concerns about the coronavirus; 20 percent said they are more focused on election coverage; and 19 percent said they had no free time for sports.
Cable news viewership numbers support the Marist findings. The average total day viewership on MSNBC, Fox News and CNN is up to 1.49 million in 2020, from 1.01 million last year.
“People are telling us sports are no longer the priority in their lives,” said Jane McManus, director of the Marist Center for Sports Communication. “Think about it: You’re watching your kids Zoom into classes and you may have stared at a screen all day for work so you’re less inclined to turn the TV on for a game.”
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