In some respects, it seems odd to indulge in the tradition of squinting ahead into the great unknown in light of the year we’ve collectively been through, one that resisted predictability at every turn. At no point in the waning days of 2019 did anyone prophesy that the Lakers and Dodgers would win their respective league titles within 16 days of each other and in front of the smallest TV audiences on record, because that sort of talk gets you trundled off to Trembling Pines for a bit of a drying-out.
It’s a feature of our very human limitations that we like to make the occasional gesture toward clairvoyance, even though no one ever sees the really big things coming; that we’re almost always alone when we blurt “wide right!” just before the kicker blows the extra point is the universe’s way of thumbing its nose at our presumption. In a more charitable light, the old Nostradamus routine is a function of our wanting to assert control over the intractable. Turns out the secret to maintaining the illusion of second sight is to scale down: I can tell you with absolute confidence that you’re going to burn the roof of your mouth on a slice of pizza at least twice in 2021.
With that all in mind, here are a few things that are almost certainly going to happen in the sports-media universe within the next 12-or-so months, barring the occasional unforeseeable catastrophe. Knock wood, but it would have to be a real doozy to top last spring’s you-know-what.
Let’s start off with an easy one. As much as the bug-eyed digital-futurist crowd wants you to believe that one of the FAANG Gang is about to spirit away the NFL’s most prestigious media packages from the legacy broadcast networks, that’s not going to happen—at least not this time around. As much as the aging of the network television audience is a matter of profound concern, the scale at which the Big Four broadcasters operate makes them the only viable option for a league that values near-ubiquity.
That the symbiotic relationship still thrives in spite of TV’s greying customer base is evident in the Nielsen ratings. Now that the Fox Christmas Day numbers are in, the NFL currently accounts for 33 of the year’s top 50 broadcasts, and 71 of the top 100. In February, some 100 million Americans will tune in to CBS to watch the Super Bowl LV battle between the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers—this is a Matryoshka doll prediction, one nestled inside the other—and while a subphylum of grown men who tweet about TikTok may scoff at TV’s creaky fundamentals, none of their digital darlings can lay a finger on that sort of massive, glitch-free delivery.
If Amazon’s much-vaunted Dec. 26 audition is any indication, the NFL isn’t about to hand off a major TV package to a tech platform any time soon. Aside from the stuttered frame rates, buffering and pixelation that are endemic to streaming in bulk, with an average-minute audience of 4.8 million viewers, the Niners-Cards game didn’t exactly draw an NFL-grade crowd. Amazon’s global deliveries were about one-third the size of the audience CBS and Fox draw with their regional windows every Sunday afternoon (14.2 million), and were frankly insignificant in light of the 22.7 million viewers the two networks reach in their shared national slot.
In time, perhaps as soon as the 2022-2030 deals expire, an Amazon or Google will wrest the rights to live NFL games from an old-school TV network. As the rise of Netflix and the habits of tens of millions of young media consumers have made evident, the future of video is streaming. But there’s a lag time between early adoption and universal application. In the words of the author William Gibson, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”
Amazon may continue to keep up its current streaming arrangement with the NFL, one in which it acts as a sort of digital sidecar to the Thursday Night Football broadcast/cable hybrid. But in the near term, TV will remain athwart the motorcycle, and much of what we’ve come to recognize as the NFL experience will go unchanged. This means that CBS and Fox will hold onto their positions as the overseers of Sunday afternoons in the fall, maintaining their affiliate-favoring conference split—one that’s been optimized by the cross-flex. NBC parent Comcast won’t allow Sunday Night Football to fall into the hands of a rival conglomerate, and the return of pro football to ABC has practically been telegraphed by this season’s trio of Monday Night Football simulcasts.
So, not a lot of surprises in store. Look for deals to get done after the Super Bowl, but before the spring owners meeting.
Ratings Declines Will Continue as Younger Fans Tune Out Linear TV
The TV habit is now largely a nostalgia act, a palliative for Boomers and Gen Xers who grew up on the sublime blandishments of the tube. Millennials can take it or leave it; Gen Z may not even be entirely aware that it exists. Television mostly reaches an audience for which advertisers have demonstrated a myopic indifference; per Nielsen, people age 65 and up do the bulk of the viewing, at seven hours and 14 minutes per day. The next heaviest users are those within the 50-64 range (5:43), and consumption continues to wither as the demographics become more desirable. The 18-34 crowd squeezes in just 97 minutes of TV time each day, while surrendering four hours and 13 minutes to their phones.
Fewer than 69% of U.S. TV households now subscribe to a traditional cable or satellite TV service, down from 81% three years ago. Virtual MVPDs and broadband-only homes help claw back some of those missing impressions (total multichannel penetration is now around 76%), but you can see where this is all heading. Younger people are responsible for much of the cord-cutting and/or the growing disinclination to pay for TV, and evidence of this is splashed all over the Nielsen ratings. The CW, which just a few years ago targeted adults 18-34, is currently delivering an audience with a median age that’s flirting with 60. Season-to-date, only four network shows are posting a median age that falls within the parameters of the 18-49 demo, and by the slightest of margins. All four are animated Fox comedies, the youngest-skewing of which is Bob’s Burgers (46.3 years).
On the bright side, the two broadcast programs that reach the youngest audiences outside the “Animation Domination” block are Sunday Night Football (53.0) and Thursday Night Football (53.2), but even with the primetime NFL showcases, the kids are vastly outnumbered. While 38% of SNF and TNF viewers are members of the 18-49 set, only 15% are 18-34 and a mere 6% are non-adults. The median age of the U.S. population? 37.9 years.
Despite the sort of high-impact sporting events that command the largest overall viewership, the TV numbers will continue to fall as the people who do the bulk of the TV-watching begin to, well, move on to other things/planes of existence. Yes, the vertiginous ratings declines of 2020 were an anomaly, a function of too much stuff going on at the same time in the midst of a political cycle that gave the cable news networks their highest ratings ever. So while you can safely bet the mortgage that the 2021 NBA Finals and World Series won’t put up even lower numbers than this year’s temporally dislocated, over-cluttered events, neither should anyone expect a return to the halcyon days.
A good deal of this contraction may be accounted for if the ad industry would ever get around to ditching the demos and adopting an inclusive currency that values digital impressions on a par with those served up by TV. Don’t hold your breath on either measure, although Nielsen says by fall 2024 it will replace the old commercial ratings currency with a new cross-metric scheme. A similar projection was made in 2014. We’ll see. In the meantime, the supply-and-demand model that underpins the TV industry will only drive in-game ad pricing up, which could go a long way toward taking the sting out of the inevitable premiums the networks will pay for the rights to air live sports. If the demand to reach TV’s last outsized audience (one which also, however incidentally, tends to watch the commercials) remains flat-to-up and the supply of impressions continues to fall, broadcasters won’t necessarily have to sweat out the last few years under the old ratings system.
NHL Ends Network Exclusivity with New Bifurcated Rights Package
NBC Sports isn’t going anywhere, but its stranglehold on the NHL TV rights is about to slacken after its current $2 billion deal expires at the end of the 2021 season. Look for the league to parcel out a split package that will find NBC and its cable sibling NBCSN share rights with either Fox or ESPN. Both parties are interested in locking in the Stanley Cup Finals, which would be shared with NBC as part of an alternate-year schedule, but the allure of NHL coverage lies beyond just the championship series. Fox wants in-season hockey to bolster its FS1 roster, which in turn would give it more leverage as it looks to renegotiate carriage with cable operators. ESPN would like to use a robust slate of NHL action to draw hockey fans to its ESPN+ service, which boasted 10.3 million subscribers at the end of the most recent fiscal quarter. In a push, ESPN likely wins out, although the delay in getting the NFL package sewn up has made it difficult for anyone involved to count the house. Assuming a price hike of 80%, Fox will cough up $1.98 billion per year for its Sunday portfolio of regional and national windows, although it’ll save a bundle when it punts on re-upping its Thursday Night Football deal. ESPN parent Disney has its eye on two NFL windows, but its $329.7 billion market cap gives it the latitude to double up on football while sprinkling a half-measure of hockey into the mix.
Olympics Will Be Partially IRL, Partially Remote
By the middle of next year, you’re going to be sick to death of reading about “lessons learned from the pandemic,” largely because most of us will have forgotten anything we may or may not have learned once we’re all a few months on the other side of relative normalcy. And then before you know it, you’ll be eating at salad bars and sing-screaming karaoke and making out with strangers again—and that’s fine. We’re resilient and sociable creatures, and more than a little dumb, but that’s what makes us human.
But all that carrying on and willful amnesia won’t begin to really set in until a sufficient percentage of the population has been poked with one of the vaccines, and we’ve a long way to go before our date with the needle. (If this interactive feature from The New York Times is any indication, we may be able to get out of the house again in time for next New Year’s Eve.) As such, look for NBC to proceed with a hybrid broadcast scheme for its coverage of the long-delayed Summer Olympics, which is still being billed by organizers as “Tokyo 2020.” Broadcasters, technical crew members and other support staff will be given the option to travel to Japan or work from NBC’s Stamford, Conn., studios, which functioned as a stateside Olympic Village during the 2018 Winter Games.
The ratio of staffers who travel to Tokyo and those who choose to hold down the fort from NBC’s 300,000-square-foot broadcasting center will likely reflect the vaccine’s distribution status, and there is hope that by July a good deal of the network’s Olympics team will have had an opportunity to get the shot. But keeping between one-third and one-half of the key players back at home will save NBC a bucket load on travel expenses, and if there’s one lesson that managers and network suits will retain from the pandemic, it’s that the days of burning vast sums of cash on airfare and hotels and per diems are over. And this applies to pretty much everyone in the media business. The virus may have redefined certain aspects of your job or disrupted the most quotidian elements of protocol and methodology, but Zoom straight-up killed your expense account.
VR is Never Going to Happen
I’m old enough to remember all the hype of the cable industry’s 3D TV push, which promised to bring the action right into your living room in a viewing experience so true-to-life that fans were advised that they’d find themselves flinching at errant foul balls. The hype persisted from 2010 to 2013, when the networks realized that nobody who’d already invested in the luxurious novelty of an HDTV set—and in the immediate wake of the Great Recession, no less—was going to turn around and spend another 10 large on a special 3D-enabled unit. (Nor did anyone want to wear those stupid glasses.) Equipment costs aside, the desire for 3D was largely manufactured; after all, TV may be the ultimate lean-in medium, but the people on TV aren’t supposed to lean right back in on you. And then there were the physical complaints associated with tricking your eyeballs for an extended period of time—headaches, nausea, disorientation. In summation: 3D was too expensive, not much fun, the programming was limited to a handful of live events, and nobody asked for it in the first place. Now take all that and apply it to VR. Same ol’ song and dance, only now the headgear is even more ridiculous.