America Didn’t Need Sports After All

The public’s emotional connection to big-money athletics has been grossly overestimated.

An illustration of a basketball player slamming a coronavirus shape into a hoop.
Adam Maida / Getty / The Atlantic

The night that sports began shutting down was the night that the United States began shutting down. On March 11, 2020, an announcer at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s home arena told fans just before tip-off that the evening’s game had been postponed. Within an hour, the visiting Utah Jazz revealed that a player—soon identified as the center Rudy Gobert—had tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA also declared that it was indefinitely suspending the season. Suddenly, Americans were forced to accept that the coronavirus pandemic was going to completely disrupt everyday life.

Although the NBA eventually resumed its season by creating a playoff bubble, and other professional and college leagues figured out a way to return in some form, the sports world is still struggling for normalcy nearly a year after widespread shutdowns began and fans turned their attention to matters of life and death.

As the pandemic dragged on, the leagues, universities, pro franchises, and other entities that profit from a multibillion-dollar sports economy made a push for games to return. But these efforts also reflected a working assumption that the mere presence of sports would provide comfort, and perhaps a welcome distraction, for people who wanted to escape the horrors of the pandemic, at least momentarily.

But the ratings for some of the biggest sporting events in the past year show that the public’s emotional connection to sports during a tumultuous time has been grossly overestimated. In practically every sport, the number of television viewers nosedived in 2020, despite the fact that more people than usual were stuck at home. Compared with the previous year, ratings were down 51 percent for the NBA Finals, 61 percent for the NHL finals, and 45 percent for tennis’s U.S. Open. Not even the Kentucky Derby was safe: Ratings dropped 49 percent from the previous year. The 8.3 million viewers represented the derby’s lowest TV audience ever.

The NFL has long been immune to ratings pressures, but not this year. The NFL couldn’t have asked for a better story line for the Super Bowl earlier this month. The game pitted Tom Brady, the celebrated Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback seeking his seventh Super Bowl win at age 43, against Patrick Mahomes, the brilliant young Kansas City Chiefs star who has become the new face of pro football. The game should have been a ratings bonanza. Instead, the Super Bowl drew its lowest ratings in 15 years.

Not even Brady and Mahomes could overcome some daunting underlying trends. In recent years, sports programming has had to compete harder for fans’ attention. Streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu have exploded in popularity as more Americans are severing ties with their cable and satellite companies. That shift has accelerated during the pandemic. In 2020, streaming services saw a 50 percent hike in viewership from the previous year. Even before the pandemic, cord-cutting had become a real challenge to sports-network giants such as ESPN, which currently has 83 million subscribers. Ten years ago, ESPN had just over 100 million subscribers.

Plenty of evidence suggests that sports broadcasts aren’t resonating as well with Generation Z—Americans born after 1996—as they did with previous generations. According to a recent poll, only 53 percent of Gen Zers identify as sports fans. And more troubling for networks that have invested heavily in live sports, Gen Zers are half as likely as Millennials to watch live sports regularly, and twice as likely to never watch.

Exacerbating those trends, the pandemic has made sports unusually tough to follow. The normal sports calendar was wildly reshuffled. The NBA Finals, which are usually played in June, began in October. Normally in April, pro golf’s storied Masters Tournament was moved to November. In college football, well more than 100 games were canceled or postponed as many colleges and universities struggled to deal with the virus. During some weeks of the NFL season, games were played on Tuesdays or Wednesdays because positive COVID-19 tests by players and staff had delayed games scheduled for the previous weekend. In late November, the Denver Broncos actually had to play their game against the New Orleans Saints without any quarterbacks on the roster because of COVID-19 protocols. (To fill the position, Denver tapped a wide receiver from its practice squad.) The NCAA men’s March Madness tournament will take place this year, but inside a bubble in Indianapolis, and with a limited number of fans.

Even though the sports world did provide several moments of reprieve for the nation—for example, ESPN’s highly successful documentary series on Michael Jordan—it ultimately could not make fans forget certain harsh realities. Even if some fans were able to compartmentalize the pandemic’s heavy toll, the sports-viewing experience only reminded fans of just how abnormal things were. The pageantry and traditions in sports largely were missing. The Augusta National Golf Club’s “Amen Corner” had no roaring crowd during the Masters. When Green Bay Packers players scored touchdowns at Lambeau Field, they did the famous “Lambeau leap” into empty stands—if they did it at all. The new normal for fans is watching games with manufactured crowd noise and virtual or cardboard fans in the stands.

The overriding lesson from the past year is that too much money was at stake for pro and college sports not to forge ahead—no matter how awkward, hypocritical, and exploitative the attempt might be. On March 7, the NBA will hold its All-Star Game festivities in Atlanta, despite serious objections by players, including the superstar LeBron James. The dynamic showcase event is usually stretched out over the course of a weekend, but this year the All-Star Game, slam-dunk contest, skills competition, and three-point-shooting contest will be shoehorned into one day. The bad optics are difficult to ignore. When the NBA announced plans for the event, Georgia had one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the nation. And even though the league has instituted strict health and safety protocols for its All-Star events—which include requiring participating players and their guests to travel by private transportation—the league clearly believes that trying to create some version of All-Star Weekend is worth potentially exposing its best players. Not to mention that the presence of this event is complicating the jobs of Atlanta officials. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has already pleaded with basketball fans not to travel to her city for the event and for party promoters not to host All-Star-related events. But considering the state’s lenient COVID-19 restrictions, Bottoms’s pleas may be totally ignored.

Since that fateful night in Oklahoma City last March, the sports world hasn’t been the escape that some fans desperately needed it to be. It has simply mirrored the chaos the entire country has experienced. During a deadly pandemic, a lot of people just couldn’t bring themselves to enjoy the distraction that sports traditionally provide.