Sports Title Tilts Take Ratings Hit

2000 World Series
Ratings for Fox’s coverage of the Dodgers-Rays World Series were down 30% from 2019. (Image credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The delayed championship runs for the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball suffered a major body blow in the ratings, but industry observers say that viewership for those sports events should bounce back in 2021. 

Last month featured an unprecedented sports schedule in which the NBA Finals, hockey’s Stanley Cup Finals and baseball’s World Series all took place within three weeks in October. Pandemic-related delays caused the NHL and NBA to reschedule their playoffs from the spring to the fall, while baseball played three rounds of postseason games in a span of three weeks. 

While many observers predicted the games would generate strong appeal from sports-starved viewers, the championship runs for each sport suffered significant declines. The six-game World Series, pitting the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Tampa Bay Rays,  averaged 9.79 million viewers for Fox, down 30% from last year’s seven-game Washington Nationals-Houston Astros series (13.9 million) and finishing as the lowest-rated World Series ever, according to Sports Media Watch’s reporting of Nielsen ratings. 

The NBA Finals, where the Los Angeles Lakers bested the Miami heat in six games, also set a record low. ABC’s coverage averaged 7.49 million viewers, down 49% from last year’s Golden State Warriors-Toronto Raptors final in June 2019, according to Sports Media Watch. The six-game NHL Stanley Cup Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars averaged 2.15 million viewers for NBC, down 60% from the June 2019 St. Louis Blues-Boston Bruins finals.

The unprecedented glut of pro content in such a short time span hurt viewership, sports analyst Lee Berke said. “We’ve never had a year where the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Finals and the World Series — along with Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football — are playing up against each other,” he said. “Under those circumstances there has to be some cannibalization of viewers.”

Media consultant Bill Carroll said other factors, such as the election and fears surrounding COVID-19, pushed potential sports viewers toward news programming. Indeed, networks such as Fox News Channel set audience records during October with continuing coverage of the election as well as pandemic-related developments. 

“Unfortunately, I think folks got used to not having sports, and more people focused on their health and the election — those sorts of things overshadow even live championship sports programming,” Carroll said. “That gets reflected in the ratings.” 

Content Still Valuable

Despite the low numbers, Berke is not worried about the future of live sports programming. He pointed to the positive trends regarding the business of TV sports content, including baseball’s recent extension with Turner Sports and the NFL’s recent deal with Amazon Prime Video to stream a playoff game in 2021, as evidence that live sports content is still a valuable commodity for cable, broadcast and streaming services. 

“Overall, sports viewership has gone up in terms of the amount of hours people are watching sports, along with the digital consumption of sports content which went up substantially (in October),” Berke said. “Once everything gets back in a pattern, I’m not foreseeing much of an issue. I don’t think anyone wants a repeat of this year with all of those big sports events going against each other.”

Viewers should return to their normal sports viewing patterns once league championships again take place during their usual timnes, Carroll said. 

“I think if and when we get back to some sense of normalcy next spring or summer, that may help turn things around,” he said. “If we’re still in relatively the same circumstance as we are right now, I think that will negatively impact what happens with any event.” 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.