Behind the Slump in TV Sports Ratings

NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images; Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The opening game of the World Series on Tuesday drew 9.2 million viewers on Fox. It was down about 25 percent from last year's opening game, and recorded the smallest audience for any World Series game in at least 50 years.

If that sounds familiar, it's because nearly every major sport has suffered similarly steep declines this fall. In a year when Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL were all playing critical games at the same time, TV sports viewers have been spread thin. Not to mention that all this has been happening in the latter stages of a hotly contested and relentlessly covered presidential campaign, and a global pandemic that has sent TV news ratings soaring.

It's not even that sports viewers are abandoning their games. From the start of the shortened baseball season on July 23 through Oct. 5 — a period that encompassed all of the NHL playoffs and Stanley Cup Finals, the NBA playoffs and three games of its finals, major championships in golf, tennis and horse racing and the first month of the NFL and college football seasons — TV sports viewing on national outlets was up by 7 percent over the same period last year. With less entertainment programming than usual airing, live sports telecasts, along with news programs, regularly dominate the primetime rankings.

But with the exception of the baseball playoffs and football, all of those other events would normally have taken place in the spring and summer. The exceptionally crowded fall has largely meant that sports viewers often had to make a choice, meaning that individual sports have almost universally suffered.

NFL viewership is down about 13 percent versus the same time in 2019, a little steeper than the 9 percent decline in the previous presidential election year. Its numbers are still well clear of every other sport — and everything else on ad-supported TV, for that matter. The rest of the sports landscape is suffering much greater losses.

The NBA and NHL playoffs as a whole fell by 37 and 38 percent, and their finals plummeted 49 percent and 61 percent from a year ago. The final round of the U.S. Open golf championship dropped 56 percent versus 2019. Baseball's division series and league championship series fell by 40 percent and 32 percent — and the latter would have been even steeper were it not for a big tune-in for the seventh game of the National League series.

College football's viewership has grown in the past couple of weeks — and CBS scored 9.6 million viewers for a primetime game Oct. 17 — but remains behind last season. ABC's weekly primetime game is drawing 32 percent fewer viewers than it did last season.

Overall TV usage is also down from the same time a year ago, falling by about 9 percent. That's been evident across most broadcast and cable channels, with the exception of the three main cable news networks. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC rose a combined 43 percent in primetime (and 35 percent for the full day) in the third quarter. Fox News led all of TV in primetime for the period, the first time a cable channel has ever beaten every broadcast network. In the first part of October, cable news consumption spiked by 79 percent over last year.

It seems unlikely that in normal times, when the NBA and NHL playoffs wrap up by mid-June and baseball fans have a full, six-month regular season followed by the October playoffs, that any of those huge drops would have taken place, let alone all at once. (Conservative media outlets and some politicians have seized on the NBA's social justice campaign as the reason for its declines, though polling around the issue suggests the effect was marginal at best. That reasoning also ignores the across-the-board drops in televised sports and an increase in ratings for the WNBA Finals, which arguably featured more overt political messaging.)

As it did with so many other aspects of daily life in the United States, the pandemic disrupted the sports calendar, and the way they resumed has crowded the marketplace to create smaller slices of the pie for each individual sport. To say nothing of the fact that the pie is also getting smaller.

Media research firm LightShed Partners estimates that the number of households that subscribe to some sort of multi-channel provider — whether cable, satellite or streaming providers like Hulu Live and YouTube TV — will fall to 74 million by the end of the year. That's a drop of some 27 million homes from the peak in 2012.

Traditional TV outlets have a lock on major sports rights deals for at least the next few years, but the billions they spend on those deals will likely go to chasing a shrinking pool of potential viewers.