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My theory of why TV sports have become less popular

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about declining viewership for TV sports. Below I’ll link to a news article discussing various possible explanations, but first I want to share my theory, which is that we’re watching less sports because we’re talking about sports less, and we’re talking about sports less because we’re mixing with other people less.

My theory

The World Series recently ended. In normal times, we’d run across people at work or at school or on the street, and sports would come up in conversation. Are the Dodgers finally gonna win it all? Everybody hates the Astros. Is LeBron now officially the goat? Etc. The sports is as good as it always is, but we’re more motivated to watch the game if we’ve been talking about it for the past few days. And it’s not even just face-to-face conversations. There’s also been less sports coverage in the newspaper.

Some other theories

Here are some other theories, along with some numbers courtesy of Kevin Draper writing in the New York Times:

TV Ratings for Many Sports Are Down. Don’t Read Too Much Into It Yet. . . .

Ratings for the N.B.A. finals were down 49 percent, and the N.H.L.’s Stanley Cup finals were down a whopping 61 percent. Baseball, golf, tennis, horse racing and other sports have all seen huge declines. Even the usually untouchable N.F.L. was down 13 percent through Week 5. . . .

Since each restarted play, the N.B.A. playoffs, N.H.L. playoffs, Major League Baseball regular season and playoffs, United States Open tennis, United States Open golf, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and college football have all had ratings declines of at least 25 percent compared with 2019.

In a normal year, the ratings for a league might be up or down a few percentage points; anything approaching double digits is a pretty big deal. Ratings drops like these are rare for a single league or event, and unheard-of across most of the entire sports television landscape at once. . . .

He then discusses possible reasons for the ratings drop:

To begin, fewer people are turning on their televisions. Compared with September 2019, total viewership across all television was down 9 percent in September 2020 . . .

There are also standard cyclical trends that affected some sports. August 2019 viewership was down 9 percent from April 2019 viewership, as people watch less television in summer than in spring. This year, that hurt leagues like the N.B.A. and N.H.L., which typically end before the summer. . . .

When sports have been played during the evening, they have faced unusually tough competition. Viewership of cable news in early October was up 79 percent compared with last year . . .

There has also been increased competition within sports. . . .

And, of course, politics gets into the act:

There are a lot of people grafting their preferred political narrative onto the N.B.A.’s ratings decline. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, sparred with the Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban about ratings on Twitter. . . .

There are a few problems with asserting that political or social justice stances have affected N.B.A. viewership. . . . Much of the polling on the issue is poorly done, but the main takeaway from the better polls is that there is little evidence fans are turning away from the N.B.A. for political reasons. . . .

Also, nearly every other sport also saw huge declines even though they did not embrace demonstrations in the same way. As some people on social media joked after seeing the low ratings for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, did people turn off the television because the horses knelt during the national anthem? . . .

29 Comments

  1. Liam says:

    I thought the NYT article lacked a bit of the longer-term picture. The NFL isn’t untouchable and its 5% increase in the 2019 figures were considered a rebound after poor 2017 and 2018 seasons (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/31/nfl-television-viewership-increases-5percent-for-2019-season.html).

    I think that we’ve had a 30 year growth market in televised sports and the biggest sports have hit saturation point. At this point endless year-on-year growth stops and they end up in the rockier territory of a mature segment where things bounce up and down a lot more

  2. MJM - WA says:

    Are we mixing w/ people less or mixing w/ people less in person? Is this dependent also on any changes in the types of people we are mixing with and how? I am wondering about this because of the near total recovery in miles driven, and the massive increase in ph and videoconference calls since this began back in March. And certainly we see certain types of interactions having diminished w/ the decline in air travel and restaurant sales.

    • Esteban says:

      Anyone else remember trying for Johnson’s Presidential Physical Fitness Award as a kid? Does it still exist? Perhaps as a society we place less of an emphasis on personal fitness for ourselves and for our children. Consequently, one downstream effect from this trend may be less of an overall interest in and/or appreciation for organized sports. Unfortunately, the fatality demographics associated with this pandemic disease are not likely to reverse this unhealthy trend, since our young appear to be relatively protected from the virus and have not yet had enough time to develop the comorbid conditions it took their parents decades of the same kind of physical inactivity habits to acquire.

    • Andrew says:

      Mjm:

      My miles driven haven’t changed much, that’s for sure! Seriously, though, I was thinking about this, and even when people are going to work and to school, there’s less conversation. When I see someone I know on the street, we say hi but we don’t have long conversations. When I go to a restaurant, I do takeout rather than sit eating my lunch seeing some sports happening on the bar TV. I just feel like we’re less exposed to opportunities for talking about sports.

  3. Steve says:

    Andrew:
    ,
    Is the premise correct? Are fewer people watching televised sports? My understanding is that Nielson does not rate streaming services. There are a whole bunch of ways of watching sports through streaming services. If that audience isn’t being captured by the ratings, then maybe we don’t know if viewership is down or people have switched the way they watch or some combination. I don’t know the answer, just think streaming complicates the problem.

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      Yeah, good point. All that zooming could make people more comfortable watching things on their computers. I kinda assumed that people talking about declining ratings had thought about this, but maybe they haven’t.

      Also, vaguely related: ads when watching sports on ESPN or TNT or whatever seem so much worse than TV ads. They’ll often repeat an ad many times during a streaming broadcast, in a way that they would not do on TV. I’m not sure why that is, but in any case my guess is, given these delivery issues, adversing on streaming services will be much less effective than advertising on TV.

      • Steve says:

        Once I looked into it, the issue became really complicated. But, it makes sense that Nielsen would not measure streaming because they are selling a service that provides information on how much impact your ad will have, and companies advertising online are paying only for the ads that are viewed. Each streaming service can tell you exactly how many views each ad got. I think this is going to ultimately destroy the usefulness of Nielsen ratings and make it much harder to figure out what people are watching.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Andrew said,
        “All that zooming could make people more comfortable watching things on their computers.”

        Another possibility is that all that zooming, overseeing the kids’ schooling, and other time-consuming consequences of the pandemic take up a lot of time and attention, and don’t leave much time for watching sports.

      • ian charboneau says:

        My male friends break into two camps. Those with generally liberal politics who don’t care about team sports they ski surf climb etc. And those with generally conservative politics who grew up playing and watching team sports. And outside of NBA fans literally everyone I have ever known who is male a team sports fan is either a republican or was born before WWII.

  4. malcolmkass says:

    I think it is an increased sports competition mentioned in the article, the primacy of football, and that people budget time for leisure activities. People’s usual first choice across sports is football and this crowds out other sports viewing items, even if they are not “on” at the same time.

  5. rm bloom says:

    It’s because they’ve found they can channel their aggression with greater vim and vigor and veracity into “political” disputes than in rooting for a team in a fictitious fight. Who needs the proxy of the “game” to do that when they’ve got Fox TV?

  6. Marcos says:

    Another trend is towards cord-cutting [1] and since current contracts don’t typically have clear broadcasting rights for internet providers (e.g. youtube tv, amazon prime), there is less people with access to these ‘premium’ content

    [1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-22/at-t-s-ceo-predicts-that-millions-more-homes-will-cut-the-cord

    Also worth mentioning: “North American operators reported a loss of more than 2 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2020 alone. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic is responsible for significant subscriber loss. One reason is that the cancellation of sports events due to the pandemic has caused many sports fans to cancel their pay-TV packages”

    https://www.abiresearch.com/press/covid-19-pandemic-accelerates-pay-tv-cord-cutting-2020/

  7. JimV says:

    Another factor that had an impact on my viewing was that until recently there was something (NBA, NFL, Hockey, Baseball) on every night and twice on some days, and that’s a lot of viewing time, maybe too much for busy people. (I don’t watch soccer except for Olympics but that seems to be on somewhere 24/7.)

    Sports on TV isn’t that great, but usually it beats the heck out of whatever else is on, as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Can we step back from meta-analysis for a second and talk about baseball? What about Cash’s decision to yank Snell in game 6 of the finals? Shouldn’t that be what stats-minded sports fans are talking about this week?

    We don’t have an antenna or cable, so we watch zero broadcast TV. I do subscribe to Netflix and have Amazon Prime. We watch a lot of “TV shows”, just not through broadcast or cable TV. MLB streaming sucks because you can’t get local games—they’re still blacked out, presumably because of contractual issues with the TV stations.

    The only sport Mitzi and I watch is baseball, but we watch a fair bit of it through the MLB streaming service. Despite knowing a lot more about the analytics and enjoying that aspect of it, I’m finding all the strikeouts, groundouts into the shifts, pitching changes, and HRs really boring. The average game length in 2019 was 3 hours, 10 minutes; it was 2 hours, 27 minutes during my peak baseball fandom in 1972 when the Big Red Machine was stamping out wins.

    I’d prefer to see 7 inning games, an 81 game season, pitchers required to pitch to 3 batters, and put that runner on 2B in the 8th inning if it gets to that. I doubt anything other than 7 inning games will make much difference, because with all the other mods and 9 inning games, it only shaved off 5 minutes/game in 2020 vs. 2019! Also, 162 games plus playoffs/finals are really really hard on the athletes’ bodies, especially now that baseball players are so big and strong.

    • Let’s take it a little farther, 5 inning games, pitchers have to pitch to at least 3 batters, and if it’s a tie after 5 innings, decide it by penalty kicks :-D

      • Glad I could hijack this thread for baseball :-). No sports for me to watch until the spring now.

        @Daniel Lakeland: I think a home-run derby tie-breaker would be more fun for the fans.

        @jim: Changing the strike zone is a really interesting idea. Over time, it has moved down. With analytics, the umpires have been trained a lot better so calls are getting better, especially on the horizontal plane and especially for LH batters.

        The analytics on batter vs. pitcher goes both ways. The defensive team also studies the batters—ground ball hit rates went from 30% to 24% for LH batters and 30% to 27% for RH batters (hey, finally an advantage for the righties) when shifted; Jim Albert’s blog has a nice analysis on infield balls-in-play in his post on the shift.

        @TBW: Foul balls not counting as strikes is a radical suggestion. I’d like to see an analysis to estimate what the effect on on-base-percentage, strike-out rate, or expected runs would be. The difference is for any X/0, or X/1 count, instead of moving to an X/1 or X/2 count, you stay at an X/0 or X/1 count. The difference in expected outcomes from the two counts would be enough to analyze this. And of course, Jim Albert’s already done the hard work for this; here’s a link to the second of his count effect analyses (it links to the first post). It’s worth it just for the visualizations (though Andrew may not like them because they won’t generalize outside of baseball).

    • jim says:

      Baseball is suffering from power hitting OD.

      The obvious remedy is to widen the plate expand the strike zone vertically. Surely hitters are much taller with longer arms and more leverage, so the strike zone has shrunk relative to the reach of the batters. Would be interesting to run some stats on player size 1970-2020 and estimate how much smaller the zone is today relative to the reach of batters.

      Pitchers are benefiting from size too, but hitters also benefit massively from being able to review video of pitchers and study every variation of delivery for every pitch with hundreds and hundreds of pitches.

    • TBW says:

      I know this is radical but I think it could possibly address several issues at once. Stop counting foul balls as strikes. This already happens when there are 2 strikes, just extend it to all foul balls. This will make strikeouts much more difficult and incentivize pitchers to focus on generating poor contact. It also incentivizes batters to focus on contact. Bottom line there would be more emphasis on putting balls in play, fewer strike outs and fewer homers. It might even shorten games as more balls in play would mean more double plays, which must be faster than waiting for 2 guys to strike out.

  9. John N-G says:

    Fewer people getting together to watch sports (covid), and not bothering to watch it alone because it’s not nearly as much fun that way?

  10. Joshua says:

    I find the canned crowd noise and the lack of real fans in the stadiums off-putting.

    Seems like an obvious factor to me. Am I the only one?

    • Jonathan (another one) says:

      Just the opposite. That’s a (very minor) plus for me, as the innumerable inane crowd shots go away.

      • Joshua says:

        Interesting.

        Do you watch basketball? Not one hoops fan I talked to didn’t miss the crowds, even if the play at some levels seemed elevated.

        I care about baseball and football less, but even there I find something missing without the crowds.

        Hockey = ZZZZZzzzzz anyway for me (except OT in the playoffs).

      • Me, too. I found watching the people in the seats behind home plate to be especially distracting as they move around a lot, there’s inevitably one dude gesticulating wildly at the pitcher, half a dozen people texting and not even paying attention, and then there are servers walking around constantly with drinks and food. Presumably it’s not bothering the pitchers as much as it bothered me. I like the crowd noise, and I especially like to see fans catching balls on the fly, especially kids (I grew up in Detroit and every time a ball went into the stands, he’d say something like “a young man from Hamtramck is going to be taking home a souvenier”—it’s the only reason I knew the names of so many cities in Michigan).

        The fake fan noise got much better during the playoffs, to the point where the only thing that was really missing was the inevitable boos for pickoff attempts, etc. The actual fans at the WS weren’t loud enough to be noticeable.

        As to hoops, how could the fans at my alma mater (Michigan State) do fake countdowns at the end of games. What I’m really most depressed about with modern supports is the lack of sportsmanship and focus on celebration. One more slow mo bat flip and I was going to rage quit watching baseball.

  11. jonathan says:

    When the lock-down started, there was a clamor for sports because men were spending so much time at home. Then I realized the sports were being pushed out of season, and that the regular season no longer mattered, and that they’d have heavily asterisked championships. That could account for some of the viewer loss; the casual fans who watch the playoffs arent as interested in watching ‘playoffs’ with air quotes around them. Perceived meaning runs into perceived quality.

    I mention this because it’s part of the function that runs includes ‘relative lack of social conversation about sports’, and which plots to viewership.

    I would imagine the issues the NFL has faced, with games postponed, players taking the season off, players testing positive, has some effect on perceived quality. You’d think the NFL would be perfect for no crowd broadcasting, given all the cameras, and the sense that the game largely occurs for TV. But I find it much more boring. (I’m no longer much of a football fan, so I discount my reaction.)

  12. GER says:

    Recall that all ‘sports’ originated as ways for ordinary people to play and have fun. Maybe (just maybe) we have rediscovered the truism that participating is way more fun/engaging/healthy than watching others on TV?

  13. zoomer says:

    Maybe interesting in this discussion is that viewing numbers for e-sports events have increased massively. E-sports are largely streamed over the internet aside from classical TV sports and much more prevalent in the younger generation, that might have watched traditional sports a few decades ago.

    It is difficult to find good articles about this that are accessible to non-experts. Try
    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/18/magazine/esports-business.html
    https://dotesports.com/league-of-legends/news/damwon-suning-and-top-esports-were-the-most-watched-teams-at-worlds-2020

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