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When Are the Fans Coming Back?

As we discussed previously, sports viewership was down significantly in 2020. In that post, we discussed some reasons for this change, as well as viewership prospects moving forward. With the future uncertain, advertisers must prepare for a world in which television viewership numbers and corresponding revenues do not return to normal.

As a result of the pandemic, people’s daily work routines were dramatically altered, and for many, these changes will remain for some time even if they are not permanent. For example, in September 2020, 23% of employed people worked remotely (Bureau of Labor Statistics). For perspective, this is up from just over 5% in 2019 (Gallup). Research firm Global Workplace Analytics estimates that between 20 and 25% of people will work from home several times a week by the end of 2021 in a more permanent form. This is relevant because it dramatically shifts many people’s traditional habits, including watching the news in the morning and sports at night. Working from home also increases flexibility, reflected in the fact that streaming has been up more than 74% this year (Nielsen). One issue with live sports is that while people can watch shows on their favorite streaming platform whenever they want, sports only occur at a certain time; this scheduling rigidity is at odds with the current state of flexibility in the world, limiting sports viewing potential. 

Another concern that is becoming more significant is the demographic groups that watch sports. A 2017 Sports Business Journal study found that the average viewer age of virtually all sports increased between 2000 and 2016. For example, the four major sports increased by a range of 2 years (NBA) to 16 years (NHL). With the percentage of viewers under the age of 18 for these sports hovering around 10%, it is a concern that will need to be addressed by sports leagues and assessed by advertisers. 

Another issue moving forward is related to the relationship between sports leagues and social justice. Even before 2020, calls for social justice may have impacted sports viewership. However, following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent increase in protest across sports, polling by Morning Consult from December 2020 states that 17% of respondents were watching sports less frequently because of politics and social justice demonstrations. In this ever-changing landscape, this percentage may increase or decrease moving forward.

So, what does all of this information say about the future of sports viewership? It seems that, based on the available data, sports viewership may never quite return to its pre-pandemic levels for a number of reasons. While habits likely have shifted, at least to a degree, long term, changing demographics and more social activism are also affecting overall sports viewership numbers. As a result, it will be necessary for marketers, broadcasters, and sports leagues to adapt to these changes in the future.

Written by Matt Burr - Matt has experience in marketing and communications roles at a number of organizations.

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