SBJ/Oct. 3-9, 2016/Research and Ratings

Time to panic over declining viewership?

In this ‘very strange year,’ TV executives continue to say no

WANT MORE GREAT STORIES LIKE THIS?

CLICK ON ONE OF THESE BUTTONS

ALREADY A
SUBSCRIBER?
SEE IF
YOU LIKE IT
GET IT ALL
(PREMIUM ACCESS)
Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Where have all the viewers gone?

That’s a question that executives across the sports and media business privately have been asking all year as they pore over data that shows a surprisingly consistent and worrisome decrease in sports television viewership.

It’s been an alarming trend through the first nine months of 2016, as traditional sports programming competes for viewers with an overheated presidential race that has led to huge viewership gains for the cable news networks. But it’s hard to overlook sports’ dropoff, as research by SportsBusiness Journal/Daily shows notable viewership losses for many major events and regular-season games across most sports.

Look no further than the NFL, which has seen massive viewership growth over the past decade. So far this year, though, each of the league’s prime-time series have posted double-digit percentage drops in viewers — a shocking situation that’s virtually unheard of for America’s top sports property.



“Sunday Night Football,” television’s highest-rated prime-time show for five years running, has seen a 10 percent viewership drop so far this season. Cable’s top sports property, “Monday Night Football,” is down 19 percent — the series’ slowest start in a decade. Through two games, “Thursday Night Football” viewership is down 15 percent.

CivicScience
survey of viewers


   Nearly half of consumers say they are watching the same amount of live sports as last year, but one-third say they are watching less, according to a survey conducted by CivicScience on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal.
   Pittsburgh-based CivicScience operates real-time, in-market reader surveys for more than 350 news outlets, content and social networks nationwide. The group’s online poll of 1,063 respondents was conducted Sept. 26-28.

Among the highlights:

When it comes to streaming live sports, 49 percent of consumers are either watching the same amount or less than last year. Nine percent of NFL fans say they are watching more live sports via streaming, compared to 7 percent of the fans in the rest of the survey.

Of those who “closely” follow the NFL, 26 percent are watching less live sports on TV, and 23 percent are streaming live sports less often.

Of those who are watching less NFL, 52 percent say it’s because of reasons such as national anthem boycotts and concussion/player safety issues; 19 percent say the quality of the game and/or broadcast has declined.

15 percent have cut the cord on television service over the past year. Another 14 percent haven’t yet but plan to do so in the near future.

Of those who “closely” follow the NFL, 18 percent have cut the cord on television service over the past year. Another 14 percent haven’t yet but plan to do so in the near future.

It’s not just the NFL. The Summer Olympics on NBC were down double digits in viewership from the London Games. ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” posted its lowest viewership average in at least a decade. Six NASCAR races from Aug. 21 to Sept. 25 logged double-digit viewership drops in race-to-race comparisons. Four prime-time UFC telecasts on Fox registered a combined 10 percent viewership drop this year.

Plus, several big events posted record low viewership, including the U.S. Open’s men’s and women’s tennis finals and the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.

So, what’s going on?

Publicly, media executives are not panicked. They say it’s too early to identify any long-lasting trends, especially considering that some properties, like the NBA and college football, have seen increases. ABC, for example, produced the highest-rated NBA Finals since 1998, and NBC’s portion of the PGA Tour schedule posted a 9 percent viewership increase this season.

“All these sports go through cycles,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of global research and analytics. “It’s impossible to suggest that there’s anything going wrong here, particularly in light of the fact that we are in a really odd year in terms of the protracted presidential race, which has captured the attention of Americans going back a year now. Plus, it’s an Olympic year, which clearly had an impact during the summer.”

Even with the viewership decreases, sports has become an even more dominant television property than entertainment or reality programming. Fox Sports provided data that showed that total sports viewing this year is up 17 percent — an expected trend in an Olympic year. Plus, live sports consistently draw the biggest audiences. Last year, 93 of TV’s top 100-rated shows were live sports programs. Ten years earlier, in 2005, live sports accounted for only 14 of the top 100.

TV executives say that between the Olympics and the unique presidential race, viewer drops for traditional sports were expected this year.

“Outside of the fact that we’re in this very strange year, I’m not seeing anything unusual,” Bulgrin said. “In fact, it’s probably remarkable that sports is holding up as well as it is.”

That “very strange year” has seen the news networks — Fox News, CNN and MSNBC — capitalize on the unpredictable, reality-show vibe surrounding this year’s presidential race. Regardless of how people may feel about the candidates, the news networks’ viewership gains mirror a train wreck that people can’t stop watching. Some believe those additional news viewers are coming from sports.

For Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of programming and research, this summer reminds him of 2000, when the George Bush-Al Gore race was left undecided until December. That was the only year from 2000 to 2010 where all four NFL TV packages dropped from the previous year — Fox was down 4 percent, CBS down 10 percent, ABC down 7 percent and ESPN down 11 percent. It also was a year that saw World Series viewership drop by 22 percent.

“I would really start with the election — I don’t think you have to look much deeper than that,” he said. “Cable news has been up so much all year, going back to the earliest primary debates. So much of a share of attention has gone to the campaign, it seems like it has affected everything else.”

Other analysts, though, suggest that the downward viewer figures for so many top sports has been caused by the migration of viewers to digital platforms — and the ever-increasing amount of streaming services available. During the Rio Olympics, for example, NBC Sports put out a Total Audience Delivery number that added up all the television and online viewers.

“I think we’ve reached the tipping point,” said longtime media consultant Lee Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment and Media. “The TV industry has moved from being mature with broadcast and cable outlets to a startup with all these streaming options.”

Neil Begley, senior vice president of Moody’s Investors Service, agreed, saying that the trend of viewers moving to digital platforms is not going away and that viewership drops across traditional televised sports should continue. “People are not watching less, they are watching on other devices which are not metered,” said Begley, who covers entertainment and media companies.

But TV executives say the digital migration is not happening as quickly as some believe and that the television audience should stabilize. The “Thursday Night Football” games on Twitter, for example, have made up less than 2 percent of the overall audience.

For his part, Fox Sports’ Mulvihill said he will keep a close eye on the post-election ratings from NFL Thanksgiving Day games and college conference championships.

“Once we get through the election, are we going to see things smooth out? I think that’s possible,” he said. “I’m expecting some normalization once all of this is over.”

Network executives surely hope so.

Where Are The Eyes Going?

Prime-time viewership trends for major cable sports and news channels

ESPN

Month 2016 (000s) 2015 (000s) 1-year % +/- 2014 (000s) 2-year % +/-
September 2,666 3,260 -18% 3,014 -12%
August 864 1,149 -25% 1,638 -47%
July 880 872 1% 1,027 -14%
June 995 1,037 -4% 1,800 -45%
May 2,122 2,164 -2% 1,896 12%
April 1,330 1,279 4% 1,518 -12%
March 964 1,187 -19% 1,239 -22%
February 1,277 1,335 -4% 1,490 -14%
January 3,614 4,337 -17% 3,866 -7%

Fox News

Month 2016 (000s) 2015 (000s) 1-year % +/- 2014 (000s) 2-year % +/-
September 2,314 1,756 32% 1,769 31%
August 2,101 2,426 -13% 1,801 17%
July 2,859 1,646 74% 1,816 57%
June 1,993 1,580 26% 1,693 18%
May 2,040 1,636 25% 1,469 39%
April 1,913 1,654 16% 1,627 18%
March 2,888 1,862 55% 1,839 57%
February 2,234 1,839 21% 1,915 17%
January 2,119 1,489 42% 1,709 24%

NBCSN

Month 2016 (000s) 2015 (000s) 1-year % +/- 2014 (000s) 2-year % +/-
September 266 292 -9% 89 199%
August* 774 285 172% 103 651%
July 377 377 0% 193 95%
June 336 414 -19% 649 -48%
May 1,049 1,115 -6% 1,108 -5%
April 388 400 -3% 433 -10%
March 290 229 27% 241 20%
February 250 210 19% 163 53%
January 246 216 14% 177 39%

CNN

Month 2016 (000s) 2015 (000s) 1-year % +/- 2014 (000s) 2-year % +/-
September 974 1,374 -29% 498 96%
August 849 585 45% 640 33%
July 1,726 567 204% 521 231%
June 888 623 43% 467 90%
May 908 587 55% 407 123%
April 1,144 503 127% 540 112%
March 1,966 514 282% 655 200%
February 1,620 515 215% 403 302%
January 849 606 40% 412 106%

FS1

Month 2016 (000s) 2015 (000s) 1-year % +/- 2014 (000s) 2-year % +/-
September 295 297 -1% 222 33%
August 210 275 -24% 232 -9%
July 280 433 -35% 249 12%
June 753 624 21% 219 244%
May 408 371 10% 347 18%
April 276 390 -29% 188 47%
March 281 218 29% 277 1%
February 341 396 -14% 433 -21%
January 241 219 10% 182 32%

MSNBC

Month 2016 (000s) 2015 (000s) 1-year % +/- 2014 (000s) 2-year % +/-
September 1,197 624 92% 536 123%
August 1,142 649 76% 576 98%
July 1,347 629 114% 556 142%
June 981 586 67% 570 72%
May 837 470 78% 543 54%
April 868 514 69% 618 40%
March 1,025 565 81% 666 54%
February 979 533 84% 729 34%
January 730 522 40% 688 6%

* Featured live coverage of the Rio Olympics.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal/Daily research


Return to top

Related Topics:

Research and Ratings

Video Powered By - Castfire CMS Powered By - Sitecore

Report a Bug