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VOL. 45 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 25, 2021

Are sports fans tuning out?

Falling ratings are a concern, but the problem might be a little more complex

By Tom Wood

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Remember the panic of 2020 when live sports disappeared from our TV screens? March Madness? Gone. NBA? Multiple delays, game played in a “bubble” and a season that ended four months later than normal. Major league baseball? Reduced to 60 games beginning in late July and then played with cardboard cutouts of fans filling otherwise empty seats.

And then a funny thing happened when sports returned from COVID-19 lockdown: Shockingly low ratings. Fickle fans had moved on.

But had they, really, or had outdated methods of measuring viewership simply been exposed?

“A lot of us thought with sports being around during the pandemic, a lot of people would watch sports – and kind of counterintuitively, the numbers went down,’’ says Vanderbilt communications professor John Koch, a senior lecturer and director of debate whose areas of interest are public memory and the intersection of political culture, rhetoric and sports.

“In large part, due to a lot of different things, it wasn’t all just related to sports, either,” he adds. “The primetime numbers for ABC and Fox and NBC and all of them were down, as well.’’

Super Bowl viewership dropped from nearly 115 million in 2015 to 99 million in 2020 to 96.4 million this year, the lowest since 2007.

Likewise, the World Series (an all-time low 9.875 million viewers last season), college football and basketball, the Daytona 500, the NBA playoffs, the NHL Stanley Cup – heck, even the Grammys, the Oscars and country music and awards shows – all experienced significant decreases in 2020 viewership.

Nielsen ratings are a measurement that reflect a sampling of 40,000 homes and 100,000 people of the estimated 121 million U.S. TV households and some 300 million potential viewers. A 1.0 rating means 1% of potential viewers are tuned into an event.

But don’t put too much stock into ratings declines, says Jon Lewis, a professor at Northeastern University in communications and media with a particular focus on the sports. For both the TV industry and sports leagues, it is – as usual – all about the money. Gobs and gobs of greenbacks.

“You can just look at all the money that the leagues are still making with media rights deals and see that the networks and the leagues are not overwhelmingly concerned about the ratings drop,” Lewis says. “If they were, you wouldn’t see the kind of money going out that we see going out.

“I tend to think that ratings are kind of a fun little parlor conversation that got way out of proportion with some of the talk we’ve had over the past year – kind of using TV ratings as a substitute for political polls and stuff like that.

“Like … it just makes conversation about playing – you know, ‘my team is more popular than your team’ or ‘my league is more popular than your league,’ or whatever – that’s a very different thing than trying to extrapolate from the TV ratings what people think about this social issue or that social issue.”

Deceiving numbers

While some sports and events held their own or have seen slight viewership gains in recent months, the bad numbers outweigh the good. Why? Theories range from more viewing options (streaming) to social connections to a flawed ratings system to even politics.

“It has a lot to do with people’s … just new viewing habits … they changed during the pandemic and also were just a culmination of viewing habits changing in general,” Koch explains. “People watch highlights on social media now or they won’t watch a whole show or a whole sporting event. They’ll just see the highlights of it.”

Mark Binda, senior programming director for E.W. Scripps, which owns WTVF-5, keeps track of Nashville ratings and cites two key factors in ratings declines.

“We’ve seen this now with everything but basically almost the NFL, that sports ratings are down,” Binda says. “Two (reasons) I would throw out there that I think are definite factors that the average sports fan probably doesn’t think of is, one, that the measurement system is flawed right now.

“I know that sounds like sour grapes on my part as a programmer, but Nielsen will even admit to you that they’re having problems. I mean, since the pandemic began, they have not been able to get into homes … to either replace meters where equipment’s broken down or where equipment’s been unhooked or whatever. But because of the pandemic, they just have not been able to go into homes.

“I think the second-biggest factor is streaming. While the Super Bowl was down, obviously, in TV ratings, a lot of people are now watching teams on their streaming devices. So they’re watching them on, not necessarily phones or tablets, but they’re getting YouTube TV or they’re getting Sling TV or DIRECTV Now through an Over the Top (OTT) provider.”

Ratings system ‘archaic’

Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University, concurs with the opinions expressed by his fellow academicians but takes it a step further, calling the ratings system outdated.

“I think what’s broken is the measurement system. When people talk about ratings, they should go back to 1990 because the way people are engaging and the way measurement … across all devices is different than what a rating is. A rating is an archaic way of looking at engagement,” Favorito says.

“And if you look at where and how people engage right now, they don’t sit in front of a screen and watch a game for three hours or 3½ hours. They don’t sit in front of a music show. They are on their phones, they are finding other ways. They are on a second or third device that none of that or very little of what factors into the way things are measured traditionally.

“We’re in a nontraditional world right now, and so people looking at Nielsen and saying ‘oh, you know the amount of homes that were watching,’ it isn’t accurate and it’s frankly unfair.”

Those viewing trends were in place before COVID-19, but the pandemic made it feel like hitting the fast-forward button on the DVR.

“A lot of sports is related to the social connections,” Vanderbilt’s Koch says. “You get together and watch sporting events with friends or you watch so that when you go to work the next day, you’re able to keep up with the conversation in the office.

“And, of course, during the pandemic people weren’t hanging out with friends or going into the office so some of that social connection was lost, too. People were just watching sports less because there wasn’t that connection with other people that we had through sports.

“One of the primary reasons we want sports is our connection to other people and to create the environment where we connect with other people. It’s kind of this unifying thing and during the pandemic, it wasn’t able to function that way and I think as a result we saw some decline in ratings.”

Northeastern’s Lewis adds: “Ultimately, the ratings aren’t very reliable. The ratings, to me, only in as much as they are relevant for advertisers or for fans kind of trying to make their team out to be more popular … Those kinds of trivial things, I think the ratings are fine for.

“I’ll put it this way: We all know how unreliable polling has been in politics, right? We have a number of pollsters that we can choose from, and everyone is aware of the fact that the pollsters are not always reliable.

“But TV ratings … we’ve got one company, right? I mean, would you ever trust one poll? If you were looking at a political race, you wouldn’t. So, to me, ratings are fine for trivial conversations as a relatively trivial business over advertisers spending their money. Otherwise, I wouldn’t put too much stock in (ratings).”

Can flaws be fixed?

In May, the Media Rating Council’s Television Committee, an industry overseer of research standards, reported that two of Nielsen’s February measurement of total TV usage by people in the highly valued 18-49 age category were understated by up to 6%.

“Nielsen is having a real problem with the measurement system. I mean, there’s a lot of concerns that since the pandemic that Nielsen’s system is kind of wacko,” Binda says.

Favorito adds the rapidly changing media landscape is only now being taken into consideration.

“It’s not a question of people not being interested. It’s a question of how we’re measuring that engagement and that tool of measurement when people talk about ratings extremely outdated and not accurate anymore. So, the system is changing; it’s just taking time.”

Nielsen says it is addressing those MRC concerns “to understand the impacts of both the pandemic and changing consumer viewing behaviors on data and analysis,” and recently rolled out a new monthly measurement dubbed “The Gauge.”

That inaugural May snapshot of total TV and streaming usage is enlightening, revealing a couple of important trends:

Streaming and broadcast usage make up more than half of all time spent watching TV, but streaming accounts for 26% of that overall audience share to broadcast’s 25%. Cable accounts for 39% of viewers. Streaming includes everything from Netflix and YouTube (leading with 6% each) to Disney+, Hulu, Peacock and all the rest in this growing consumer trend.

“The past year has categorically shifted the television viewing landscape,” says Brian Fuhrer, senior vice president of product strategy at Nielsen. “Even as people begin to dive back into their pre-pandemic activities, based on the changes many made to enable streaming coupled with the variety of newly introduced services, we expect people to keep sampling and exploring their options.

“Maybe just as importantly, as production ramps back up, new content will enter the space, driving additional traction.”

Streaming is changing the sports landscape. The NFL recently completed its 10-year media rights negotiations with a new deal that begins in 2023. It includes $1 billion annually from Amazon for the NFL’s Thursday night package.

Fans in the stands

Here’s a deeper look at various sports’ attendance and how they relating to ratings issues:

The advent of social distancing, mass vaccinations and safety protocols has allowed fans to slowly return to venues. Full capacity is now being allowed for many events – most notably the 135,000 who attended the May 30 Indianapolis 500.

Closer to home in 2021, the mid-March SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena allowed 20% capacity, or about 3,400 fans. By May, as restrictions were being lifted by city officials, the Nashville Predators were allowed to host more than 14,000 fans to their final NHL playoff game.

Nashville SC drew more than 22,000 to its May 23 MLS game against Austin, and the Nashville Sounds hosted several sellout crowds of 10,000. Vanderbilt and Tennessee hosted sellout crowds for the NCAA baseball Regional and Super Regional tournaments on back-to-back weekends and.

“These fans – we’ve kind of said it all year – once they kind of opened it up and let people come (to games), the support has been great,” Vols pitcher Will Heflin said before UT won its Super Regional to join defending national champion Vanderbilt as two of the eight teams participating in this week’s College World Series.

The biggest draw of all so far has been the June 20 NASCAR Ally 400 to cap off a Father’s Day weekend triple-header at Nashville Superspeedway in Gladeville. A sellout crowd of 38,000 (including 13,000 temporary stands) was announced a month in advance and it marked NASCAR’s first sellout crowd since the pandemic began.

“Given all that we’ve gone through as a country in the last year, having fans back out here to enjoy our sport and enjoy it together is just … I can’t tell you how excited we are,” Nashville Superspeedway president Erik Moses said on the NBCSN telecast moments before last Saturday’s Xfinity Series Tennessee Lottery 250. “The place looks beautiful and everybody’s having a good time and loving it.”

The Aug. 6-8 inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, an IndyCar street race through downtown Nashville, is expected to become Nashville’s biggest event with a more than 100,000 fans expected to attend the three-day music and racing festival.

“I think that attendance, a willingness, a desire for folks to get out and to reengage – to participate in sports and entertainment and any type of gathering – (shows) we’ve kind of come back full throttle, no pun intended,” says Music City Grand Prix president Christian Parker. “All of those have been really good indicators of what we hope to and what we expect for our event.”

And looking toward fall, the Titans, University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt have announced they will be at full capacity for football attendance.

Those three programs along with Tennessee State could see significant attendance boosts with their bold offseason moves.

Nashville native and Vandy alum Clark Lea takes has taken over the Commodores program after a lengthy stint as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. Josh Heupel left Central Florida to try to resurrect Tennessee, and the Titans traded for talented wide receiver Julio Jones to bolster an already powerful offense.

Robbie Bohren, senior director of communications, says the Titans have seen a strong renewal rate coming off a season of mandated limited attendance and the additional of Jones.

But the boldest move in the nation may have been made by TSU with its hire of former Ohio State and Titans running back Eddie George as the Tigers’ head coach. George, a Heisman Trophy winner, has no previous coaching experience.

Auto racing: Full speed ahead

In 2020, NASCAR was the first major sport to return to action with a full schedule with few fans in attendance, racing on practically every day of the week in order to get in all the races. This season, the schedule is back to normal with Fox televising the first half of the season and NBC taking over the last half.

“We were one of the sports that got back quicker than most last year. We were live in May 2020 when no other sports were back,” Brian Herbst, NASCAR’s senior vice president for media and productions, said just after the 2021 Memorial Day weekend, when the Coca-Cola 600 – up 2% from the 2020 race’s rating. This year’s race on Fox averaged 4.06 million viewers for a 2.3 rating.

The Charlotte race “felt like kind of the first big holiday weekend where you could visit friends and family … so to post a positive increase over 2020 Memorial Day weekend that felt pretty open for the country, it was a nice surprise for us.”

The Nashville Superspeedway Ally 400 was the first stop on NBC’s portion of the schedule and that was by design, Herbst says.

“Our fans have been clamoring for NASCAR to get back to Nashville for years. I think the first step for us as a sport was to bring an awards banquet to Nashville in 2019. That was really successful and well-received by the industry,” Herbst says.

“When we looked to set our schedule for the 2021 season –we did that last year in the middle of everything else in the pandemic – but when we looked at setting our 2021 schedule last year, Nashville really stood out as a new market and one that we felt would resonate with fans.”

The darker side

So everything’s rosy, right? Not so fast.

In January, NBCUniversal pulled the plug on its cable sports channel NBCSN, as it ramped up the rollout of Peacock, its streaming service. After 2021, live sports will shift to USA, Peacock and other NBC channels.

“Yeah, so NBC is just changing their distribution strategy just as consumption habits of viewers evolve,” Herbst adds. “So I think what NBC has seen – and a lot of the media networks have seen – is some decline in in the cable universe. So if NBC household numbers were at, let’s say 83 million two years ago and they’re 75 million today, it’s still an exceptionally well penetrated business.

“But do you need 11 or 12 cable channels versus 10 or 11? I think that was kind of the business decision that NBC made. And then, on the other hand, they’re seeing their digital platforms – and Peacock is their direct consumer application where they’re putting a lot of their premier NBC new content including NFL rights and EPL (English Premier League) rights and things like that,” Herbst adds.

“So they’re trying to find a balance between the right way to serve a customer that may be a little bit more prone to cord-cutting and a little less having to subscribe to pay TV. So we’ve worked with NBC to change the distribution mix of our rights in the past. And we’ll look to tweak that, kind of a topic for 2022 and beyond, as well.”

NASCAR’s current package with Fox and NBC expires in 2024 and negotiations for a new one will likely begin in 2023. The current package reportedly was worth $8 billion. How much higher can rights fees go?

Herbst laughs before answering.

“That’s a good question,” Herbst says. “What we need to be really careful about in the next deal is making sure that we continue to put our content in some of the most well-distributed platforms possible, so that we don’t undermine the team or the track economic model.

“What the structure of the new deal looks like is certainly to be determined – for us more than probably most sports. But it’ll be important for us to continue to be on well distributed outlets for the program.”

Beyond sports: ‘Thanks, Garth’

Here’s the difference a year – and even a couple of months – has made in Nashville’s ongoing recovery from the pandemic.

In mid-April, the ACM Awards continued the downward spiral that the Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys suffered, drawing a record-low rating of 0.82, which translates to 6.82 million viewers – slightly lower than the 1.1 rating and 6.82 viewers of the 2020 ceremonies.

Fast-forward to early June and the CMT Awards, which drew 828,000 viewers and increased 10% from the 2020 ceremony that was delayed until October. The CMTs were simulcast on the namesake channel, as well as TV Land, MTVm MTV2, Logo and the Paramount Network.

Live concerts also are returning in a big way.

Brad Paisley talked on NBC’s Ally 400 pre-race coverage with Dale Earnhardt about how big the July 4 concert in downtown Nashville will be. And it has also been announced that Garth Brooks will do his first stadium show July 31.

In a tweet, Gov. Bill Lee urged fans to buy tickets and “help set an all-time attendance record at @Nissan Stadium. Let’s show the world that Nashville is open & country music is stronger than ever.”

In 2019, Eric Church drew a Nissan Stadium concert record 56,521. Capacity at the home of the Titans is 69,143.

Titans President and CEO Burke Nihill and other city officials are making the same pitch.

“What better way to kick off the return of concerts to Nissan Stadium than with the No. 1-selling solo artist in U.S. history? We’re thrilled to host Garth Brooks and the Stadium Tour on July 31,” Nihill says. “The atmosphere of his high-energy concert in front of a Nashville home crowd is going to be absolutely electric, especially midfield at Nissan Stadium. We can’t wait to see everyone take in this very special performance on Nashville’s biggest stage.”

Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, says the Brooks show will be a boon to Nashville’s economic recovery.

“We just filled another weekend on our recovery journey. A Garth stadium show has been on our bucket list for some time,” Spyridon says. “He could not have picked a better year for this concert. Without question, he will fill bars, restaurants and hotel rooms. Thanks, Garth.”

And the Metro Public Health Department. says it was the city’s vaccination efforts that make live music shows possible again.

“The Garth Brooks concert … is a great example of the concerts and events that make Nashville one of the hottest destinations worldwide,” a statement reads. “The return of large concerts was made possible by the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.”

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