Standing in line at the hardware store the other day, the guy standing next to me started up a conversation with, “You know, I don’t watch the news anymore, especially the sports.”
He said he recognized me from my nearly four decades on television here in Jacksonville and stopped watching when my career was ended. He added he was just disappointed the way news is being presented in general and specifically how sports have “gotten away from the games.”
In the course of our conversation, the gentleman, who happened to be Black, was particularly frustrated with how politicized sports had become.
When I’m out, I hear that a lot. Is it true? Are people watching less news, less television and less sports?
The big answer is yes. The ‘Why?’ answer is a bit more complicated.
“I’m not happy with the NBA, or Major League Baseball,” one member of the luncheon crowd told me last week after a presentation I was asked give to his civic group. “How do I let them know I’m not happy with what they’re doing,” he said, implying that political overtones were fueling his displeasure.
“Do you watch the NBA?” I asked.
“Not anymore,” he said.
“How about baseball?” I queried since the season had just started.
“Not after what they did with the All-Star game,” he said, referring to MLB moving the game out of Atlanta as a political protest.
“Then you’re letting them know by not watching,” I explained. “If enough people agree with you, they’ll react.”
And the numbers bear that out.
In a recent poll by Yahoo News/YouGov, 34.5 percent of respondents said they watched less sports now because of social justice campaigns. TV ratings for all sports declined in 2020, almost a counter-intuitive statistic considering we were mostly homebound because of the pandemic.
Some of that has to do with the jumbled schedule. Even The Masters, playing November for the first time, saw a drop in viewership.
The NBA was hardest hit. Playing in a bubble, they lost 49 percent of their television viewers for the championship finals compared to 2019. While they had an uptick at the beginning of this season, the ratings have steadily declined since the opener. Less than six million people watched the All-Star game, an all-time low.
“My sense is there will be some sort of return to normalcy,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said before the season when asked about social justice messages on the playing floor and on players jerseys this year. “That those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor. And I understand those people who are saying ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game,’” Silver added.
There are no political messages on NBA courts this year, and soley players names have returned to the back of their jerseys. While the league has responded to the economic pressure brought to bear by advertisers and disgruntled fans, they say they’re still committed to community change.
“We’re completely committed to standing for social justice and racial equality. It’s part of the DNA of this league,” said Silver.
An increase of political commentary outside of the political arena and its negative effect on viewership is nothing new. The Oscars and the Super Bowl traditionally have been the highest rated shows on television year after year. As Hollywood has become more vocal politically in the last three decades, the Oscars viewership has dropped precipitously. Last year’s Super Bowl was watched by more than 100 million people. The Oscars had one fifth of that audience.
Perhaps the NBA is the league least worried about television watching in the United States because of their international digital presence. The league has more than 150 million followers across all social media platforms, more than the other US leagues combined. In the last three years, their social media views have jumped 43 percent.
Watching a highlight on one of your social feeds is monstrously more popular than actually watching the games.
It seemed that Major League Baseball was trying to offset any thoughts that their viewership might be down when they sent an extended press release touting the number of “streaming minutes” viewers were using through the first three weeks of the season. Their traditional watching viewership is also up over last year’s shortened 60-game, delayed-start season even if the World Series was the least-watched in MLB history.
With the smallest drop in viewership, the NFL was down just seven percent last year, and recently signed a more than $100 billion media deal that will take them through the next decade. (If you’re doing the math, that’s $312M per team, per year before they sell one hot dog, one beer, parking space, sky suite, sponsorship, well, you get the point.)
An aging fan base could be one easy reason for the decline in viewership. The average age for an NFL viewer went from 44 to 50 years old from 2000-2016 according to the Sports Business Journal. Yet the NFL had forty-one of the top fifty rated television slots last year.
It could be that with overall reduced television watching, sports broadcasts become a more valuable commodity. Even though they have a fixed starting time that doesn’t fit into the current flexible work environment most companies have adopted, sports fans will find their games and their teams. That’s why they’re so coveted by advertisers.
Viewing habits now dictate If you want people to watch, you have to make it available when they want it. Streaming services specialize in just that. Cord cutting has reached 31 million households in the US, diminishing the overall viewership pool. That’s why Nielsen estimates streaming is up nearly 75% year to year.
If you follow sports, you’ve no doubt heard of the number of layoffs ESPN has had over the past few years. It’s easy to explain when you see that the all-sports network was in over 100 million homes in 2013: That number is now around 83 million.
All of that trickles down to local viewership as well. On a good day, the local newscasts at six o’clock currently combined will have about 265,000 viewers including all channels. That number is down sixty percent from just 10 years ago.
Nielsen counts North Florida as the forty-first television market in the country with about 690,000 households. Using an average of 2.5 people per household, that adds up to 1.725 million people, meaning approximately only fifteen percent of area residents are watching the news live.
And the smaller numbers are not limited to the news. Overall television viewership is down. People are watching and doing something else, and on different devices.
Netflix holds their ratings very close to the vest, but their growing numbers have siphoned off traditional viewers year after year. Prime time shows on network television have seen their audience cut in half in the last five seasons.
Sports-wise, I know personally that local teams winning has an immediate impact. The highest rated shows I ever appeared on during my television career were centered around the Jaguars when they were winning. When the Jaguars aren’t doing well, like last season, those shows get ratings known in the TV business as “chicken scratch.” No discernible numbers. As in, not enough viewers to count.
Will overall viewership ever come back? Probably not centered on one platform with so many different options available to find information and highlights. Television viewing and especially sports television numbers are always highest in the fourth quarter of the year. If stadiums are full, that’ll be a good indicator of where the TV numbers might or might not go.
But the one common thread will be that sports fans will watch sports, somewhere. If there is a diminishing overall number of people watching television, a bigger and bigger share of that number will be sports fans watching a live game.