What Sports Fans Are Watching When There Are No Sports on TV

Madison Square Garden
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Madison Square Garden

On the weekend of March 7 and 8, avid sports fans spent more than a quarter of their considerable TV viewing time watching live events.

That was the last weekend that featured live competition, as sports leagues around the world began shutting down the following week after the novel coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. Sports viewing has obviously plummeted since then, even as overall TV usage in the United States has spiked with millions of people staying home.

Nielsen has released a study on how what it calls "heavy sports viewers" are spending their viewing time without live games to watch. The ratings service defines heavy sports viewers as the top 20 percent of live sports event viewers in the month prior to leagues shutting down. 

During that first weekend in March, heavy sports viewers spent 28 percent of their TV time watching live games — about three times that of the adult population as a whole. By the weekend of March 28-29, sports viewing among all adults had slipped to 3 percent of the total — but the heavy sports contingent still found contests to watch.

Those games were just more likely to be reruns, or virtual events like NASCAR's iRacing on Fox and FS1, which has attracted decent viewership in recent weeks. Heavy sports viewers spent about 10 percent of their time watching sports-related programming on March 28 and 29. 

As for what's filling the rest of the considerable time that group of viewers spend watching — they were already watching nearly twice as much as the adult population as a whole — news coverage has gotten the biggest boost. It went from about 10 percent of viewing time on the weekend of March 7-8 to an average of 17 percent over the next three weekends.

Viewing of feature films also grew, from about 12.5 percent of time in early March to 17 percent on subsequent weekends. SVOD content went from 4.5 percent to an average of about 7 percent of viewing time, and viewing of documentaries and instructional or advice shows also rose a couple percentage points. News and SVOD consumption also rose the most among all adults.

Per Nielsen, heavy sports viewers spent an average of more than seven hours watching live TV on Sundays in March, compared to a little more than four hours for all adults.