Time to panic over declining viewership?
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.
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
* Featured live coverage of the Rio Olympics.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal/Daily research