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Roku Audience Measurement Exec: How Pay TV Missed Its Shot on the Return of Live Sports

After a long wait and much debate, professional sports are back. Opening Day for Major League Baseball, delayed from its typical Spring debut, kicked things off last week, with the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League following this week.

Gaurav Shirole, director of audience measurement, Roku

Gaurav Shirole, director of audience measurement, Roku (Image credit: Roku)

Every detail of these shortened seasons has been viewed and scrutinized by athletes, teams and fans alike - from protocols to schedules to health safety measures. But now that the seasons are in full swing, and since in-person attendance at games is limited, and in some cases, prohibited, how can we determine if these seasons are successful? 

Well, that’s debatable.

According to Nielsen, baseball’s opening weekend saw some of the largest audiences for a regular season game on any network since 2011. NBC Sports claims Saturday’s doubleheader games in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers games was the “most-watched NHL doubleheader in four years.” And Nielsen cites the Rockets-Bucks game on Sunday as the highest of any “non-Lakers or Christmas Day game of the season.”

But our own data shows a different side of the story. 

This week, Roku released the second wave of television viewing data analyzed from millions of Roku connected households that show the majority of Roku homes that watched traditional pay TV major league baseball, basketball and hockey during the 2019 season did not return to traditional pay television to view the COVID-19 delayed opening weekend for each league in 2020 -- 2 of 3 NBA viewing households, 7 of 10 NHL viewing households and 7 of 10 MLB viewing households did not watch any of the opening weekend games on traditional pay TV during the 2020 opening weekend. 

Super fans -- the top 10% of viewers by total hours watched per season on traditional pay TV -- are no guarantee for traditional pay television either. Among baseball super fans, who watched more than 34 hours of MLB on traditional pay TV last year, 1/3 did not watch a single minute of baseball on traditional pay TV. For basketball super fans, who watched more than 29 hours of NBA last season, 2 in 5 did not watch a single minute on traditional pay TV during opening weekend this year. And 56% of hockey super fans, those who watched more than 17 hours of NHL on traditional pay TV this season, did not return for a single minute of opening weekend.

This massive drop off in audience is being fueled by a shift away from cable to streaming. This past week, we released the findings from our annual cord cutter survey that showed 1 in 3 households no longer have traditional pay TV subscriptions as cord cutting accelerated earlier this year. The survey also found that less than 1 in 5 users who cut the cord said they would consider returning to cable if sports comes back.  Now, with the data back from this weekend, we see these numbers are holding true. 

So why the difference?

Size versus staying power. Nielsen reports out the total number of viewers for each game while our survey is focused on retention of individual households from one point to another.

More than 1 in 4 cord cutters surveyed this year ranked the loss of live televised sports as their #1 reason for cutting the cord. However, after cutting the cord, 92% of Roku users from that survey reported they are “very satisfied” with their decision to cancel traditional pay TV. And almost 1 in 4 (23.7%) of US live sports viewers will watch via digital channels this year according to eMarketer.

The big question on the minds of many is whether fans have abandoned sports or simply abandoned cable and found other ways to access their content. The amount of time spent streaming sports during the 2020 opening weekend for those households that watched any NBA or NHL on traditional pay TV last season but did not watch any during the 2020 season opener increased by a quarter year-over-year and the amount of time spent streaming sports during the 2020 opening weeks for those households that watched any MLB on traditional pay TV last season but not during the 2020 season opening was up by nearly half (49%).

So while sports are back and we can’t be more excited, it’s an entirely different story for traditional pay TV, which is facing a full count at the plate, a full court press and sudden death in overtime -- all at once. 

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