COLUMN: Sports Ratings during Pandemic

In a fall full of sports, why have ratings dropped?

Graphic courtesy of Lisa Colcombe

2020 has been a year that will be unforgettable for a number of reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the sports world, and most of the ‘normal’ world to a screeching halt in March.

Major League Baseball shut down spring training, the NHL stopped with 10-15 games left in the regular season, and the NBA, you could blame Rudy Gobert, you shouldn’t, but you could. 

The spring became an extra-long version of stay at the home theatre. Netflix and DoorDash, Amazon Prime and popcorn, Hulu has old shows, you get it. 

Sports were sidelined, and with that, we watched dozens of classic replays, documentaries on historic moments and teams and even virtual competitions. You watched at least one, stop lying. 

All this time while chomping at the bit for live sports to make a triumphant return we believed they would get our undivided attention when they did. Not true, the featured image of this post courtesy of Sports Media Watch proves it. 

The saying goes you never know how much something is worth until it’s gone. However, the first reason for low ratings may be just the opposite. 


Information Overload:

While 2020 has changed a lot of the ways we typically do or think about a number of things, humans are by nature creatures of habit. We are accustomed to the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup playoffs going head to head in June, not September. 

When the sports equinox occurs with all four major sports televised it should be in October, and it should include the start of the NBA season, not the end. 

Other non-major sports may have passionate fans, but they suffered too. I’ll watch the Kentucky Derby every year, but “The First Saturday in May” sounds a lot catchier than “The First Saturday in September.” Alliteration takes a rare “L” in this case. 

By the time fall arrives most sports fans are football-centric. Trying to watch NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB all at once isn’t easy. Unless you have four tv’s or four tabs open on your go-to streaming sites, it’s not desirable. Keep streaming in mind as well, we’ll talk more on that later.


The Crowd Goes (insert audio file)

While the “Bubble Bowl” is a top-five Spongebob episode, it’s not something that looks great on television. With safety in mind, the bubbles of the NBA, NHL, and MLB were very successful at completing the seasons and reducing potential COVID-19 spread. 

However, perception can be a reality to many people. Sports played in empty arenas appear less important. Most athletes I believe showed a competitive fire even without fans or limited fans in attendance, but it’s not the same. 

For fans who will say that the Lightning, Lakers and Dodgers titles have an asterisk because they won a “COVID Cup,” I disagree. All three are legitimate champions who fought all year, pre-pause, and post-pause to win the ultimate prizes. 

As a non-fan of all of them, my only asterisk would be on the ability, or lack of, to celebrate. Any 2020 champion will always know they did it, but every future highlight will always look a little off. You will have to remind yourself what this year was like, and as we get closer to 2021, I’m sure this will be a year, most people want to forget. 


An Election and Pandemic happened

To save time I’m putting these two as one reason. I didn’t want to write about the election any more than you may or may not want to read about. Without a doubt an election year will take a bite out of sports ratings, this one came back for seconds, and may not even be full.

Priorities have changed this year. As important as sports may be to a person, 2020 has created a lot of introspection in America. Spending time with family has mattered more with every news story on the election or ever-climbing COVID-19 numbers, some people either ignored sports for a while or just turned off the tv altogether. 

Season ticket holders that couldn’t go to the game maybe took the time to finally clean the garage, go to a park or maybe even finish a good book earlier than expected. 

I doubt anyone was displeased with sports coming back. However, if you took some time to think it likely wasn’t with the game and whatever the fake crowd noise was on.


How are we watching games?

Without going into a complete communication lesson, ratings come from televisions. Nielsen has certain households that have a box tracking what they watch, for how long, when, etc..

Phone apps like Fox Sports Go, Watch ESPN, NBC Sports, do not make up standard ratings. The cable is expensive, and fewer people are willing to pay for it. Two of my friends haven’t hooked theirs up all semester, they’ve still seen every Steeler game.

I spent much of my summer all over the place, yet still found a way to watch almost every NASCAR race. Did I always have a TV? No. Was it a problem? Also No.  

Having a stuffed schedule of sports, an election, pandemic, and more contribute to the oddity that is 2020. Hopefully, next year is somewhat ‘normal.’

COVID-19 will be better controlled (maybe), sports will take place when scheduled (possibly), and election talk will take a break (please)! However, one thing I promise you sports rating analysts will still have to combat is a growing increase in cord-cutting.