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.
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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.