As much as the return of sports programming has proven to be an all-you-can-eat buffet for fans who’d been starved of live action for so many months, the gluttonous spread that’s been laid out by Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL may be a bit too much for viewers to swallow.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the sudden bounty of games available for consumption across the Disney, NBCUniversal, Fox and Turner Sports properties hasn’t had a significant impact on overall TV viewership trends, which are in a midsummer swoon. The networks, of course, are ecstatic to have live sports back; after more than four months of virtual lockdown, the lift in advertising revenue and the prospect of getting affiliate arrangements back in order has been like tipping back a tall, cool glass of lemonade while standing in the fourth circle of Hell. But the return of baseball, pro hoops and hockey thus far hasn’t managed to draw a whole lot of younger fans back to the tube.
While summertime PUT levels (that’s industry jargon for “people using television”) are traditionally depressed by a relative dearth of fresh programming options and the sort of weather that keeps many would-be viewers out-of-doors, ratings during the pandemic are at a record low.
Since the summer TV season began in May, overall TV usage is off 8% year-over-year to 73.9 million viewers per night, down from 80.6 million in the analogous period in 2019. With an average delivery of 10.3 million viewers per night, broadcast TV has been hit even harder, as the primetime audience for the Big Four networks has plummeted 19% year-over-year.
For all the general declines in TV consumption, it’s the dollar demo shakeout that has network ad sales execs shaking their heads. Through the first 75 days of the summer schedule, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox together are averaging a meager 1.5 in the advertiser-coveted age range, which translates to just 1.97 million adults 18-49 per night. That marks a demo drop-off of 38% versus last summer’s 2.5 average (3.19 million).
In the two weeks since baseball got the sports restart rolling, the networks are averaging 1.91 million adults 18-49 per night, down 30% compared to the same 14-day span a year ago. Sequentially, the demo deliveries for the first fortnight of sports-happy TV is up 7% from the 1.78 million adults 18-49 served up in the two weeks prior to MLB’s return on July 23. In other words, broadcasters enjoyed a net gain of just 130,000 consumers in the target demo when compared to the relatively sports-barren stretch just before the restart.
As much as there’s nothing new about the general flight of demographically desirable viewers from linear TV—in just four years, primetime advertising impressions among the 18-49 crowd have dive-bombed 52%—the less-than-feverish response to the return of televised sports likely has as much to do with the sudden embarrassment of riches on display. For example, among the choices fans faced on Sunday, Aug. 2, were an NBA doubleheader (Blazers-Celtics, Bucks-Rockets) on ABC, four national MLB windows, culminating in Red Sox-Yankees on ESPN and a Flyers-Bruins Stanley Cup Qualifier on NBC. (The country’s ninth-biggest media market really had its hands full on Sunday, as Bostonians had to choose between the Celts and Bruins in the afternoon before settling in with the Sox later in the evening.)
While option paralysis seems to be contributing to sports’ relatively cool reception, there are even greater forces at play. Hampered by high-profile injuries and the virtual erasure of the Golden State Warriors, NBA deliveries before the March 11 shutdown were off 14% year-over-year, to 1.64 million viewers and a 1.1 household rating; since the July 30 restart, games on ESPN/ABC and TNT are averaging 1.52 million viewers and a 1.0 rating.
None of which is to say that the thawing out of sports isn’t cause for celebration. (In 2020, anything that even so much as resembles normal is worth cheering on, even if you’re just a cardboard cutout of Bryce Harper propped up in otherwise vacant stands at Citizens Bank Park.) With the right set of eyes, you can see signs of life cropping up just about wherever you look; for example, while ESPN and FS1 have attracted smaller audiences compared to last summer, those who are tuning in are quite a bit younger than those from a year ago.
And if Fox’s MLB deliveries thus far are down 12% versus its 2019 season average (2.12 million viewers per game compared to 2.4 million), its MLB audience is 28% larger than the turnout for the network’s first-run summer schedule. The baseball demos also mark a 14% improvement over Fox’s primetime entertainment slate.
There’s also some encouraging news from the NHL bubble, where NBC’s early coverage of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers is effectively flat compared to the first weekend of playoff action in April 2019. Per Nielsen, NBC averaged 495,000 adults 18-49 with its first three NHL broadcasts since the league returned to the ice on August 1, an early haul that represents a 5% dip versus last year’s opening trio of playoff games.
While it’s perhaps inevitable that the crush of sports should lead to a fair amount of cannibalization of viewer resources—imagine how frenzied things would be right now were NBC airing the Summer Olympics as originally scheduled—the networks won’t start generating the big ad/ratings numbers until the individual leagues make it deep into the postseason.
Championships are where TV sports really scale; Game 7 of the 2019 World Series served up NFL-grade ratings for Fox (23.0 million viewers, 7.92 million adults 18-49, 13.1 household rating), while ABC’s six-game Raptors-Dubs set peaked at 18.3 million viewers (8.2 million of whom were members of the dollar demo) and a 10.7 rating.