Why Are Pandemic Sports Ratings So Terrible?

A few more people than this are watching on TV. Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If there was one thing people in the otherwise terrified universe of sports agreed on back when everything went on hiatus in the spring, it was that whenever the games did return, people would watch them until their eyes fell out of their heads. (I joked in March that I was so desperate for the diversion of competition that I was watching wasps race in my backyard, even though they were probably just mating.) The incredible success of ESPN’s miniseries The Last Dance — it was the highest-rated documentary on the channel ever by a wide margin — seemed to confirm how parched sports fans were, as did the massive ratings success of the first sports to come back: NASCAR, golf, and the NWSL. For an industry reeling from the catastrophic financial effects of the pandemic, huge audiences were thought to be the balm to get through 2020, and leagues rushed their schedules accordingly; Major League Baseball, in particular, jammed together its season to make certain it was back in time for the playoffs, which are broadcast nationally and therefore most important to its television contracts. All the leagues had to do was stage the games, the thinking went, and a sports-famished America would be glued to its televisions.

It has not turned out that way.

It’s clear that the industry’s (totally understandable!) theory that sports fans would be so desperate that they would watch anything and everything has not proven correct. Even the NFL, the ratings juggernaut of the entire entertainment industry, has been down from last year. It’s not just that ratings didn’t shoot into the stratosphere like everyone was hoping — it’s that they’re actually down. And while it’s not fair to say the sports industry is in a panic over this, that’s only because the industry is in such a panic over everything else that the ratings simply need to take their place in line.

What’s going on? There are many theories, some of which make more sense than others. Here, the current leading suspects:

More people are streaming, rather than watching on network television, than they used to.

Consider this the “presidential debate” theory. While the ratings were, in fact, down for the Trump-Biden debate, it is widely assumed that more people did tune in than in years past. It’s just that more and more of them watched the circus on streaming platforms than on terrestrial and cable television. This is an industrywide trend, of course, and sports is no different. Like a lot of people, I subscribe to a cable service (Spectrum) but don’t even use a traditional cable box anymore: I just watch through a Roku, either using Spectrum’s app or (more often) the ESPN or MLB streaming app. I honestly do not remember the last time I watched a sporting event live through a traditional cable line. The argument here is that it’s not that demand has lessened, but the way we access our sports has changed. It’s why you don’t hear ESPN panicking (so far, at least) about TV ratings: It knows, even if we don’t, how many people are watching the NBA Finals through its app. If it’s enough people that it (roughly) makes up for the ratings dip, ESPN is probably not too concerned. If anything, it’s quietly pleased: The company has long been building toward a streaming future and is likely encouraged by having more and more people exposed to its ESPN+ platform. A recent analyst report said ESPN was “uniquely positioned” to be rewarded by the shift to streaming. Who cares if “TV” ratings are down if people are just watching somewhere else? The central problem with this theory is that we don’t actually know how many people are doing this — we have to make guesses based on streaming trends and simply give ESPN and the NBA the benefit of the doubt. And this hypothesis doesn’t explain poor ratings for the NFL, which is easily the least streamable of the major sports.

People are tuning out because the games have gotten too political.

This is the argument your uncle and Ted Cruz are making. (It’s definitely the one my uncle will make the minute he reads this piece.) It’s also the Trumpian one. Back when the president was allowed in public because he had not yet contracted a potentially fatal contagious disease that he had spent months lying about, Trump claimed that NFL ratings were “cratering” because players were not standing for the national anthem. He has made this claim before, and been wrong, but that didn’t stop him from making it again, if you can possibly imagine that. It is worth noting, though, that human beings less mendacious than our president have made versions of the argument as well, most notably the excellent NBA writer Ethan Strauss for the Athletic. Strauss has directly tied the NBA’s rating drop partly to the China controversy involving Daryl Morey (and eventually LeBron James) and subsequently the league’s increasingly political outspokenness. This still feels like a bit of a leap — it seems likely that most people who claim they aren’t watching the NBA because of politics were never watching the NBA in the first place — but he is the one person trying to make a good-faith argument out of it, pointing out that your most casual, just-drop-in-for-the-playoffs NBA fan (the precise one you’d expect to be watching the NBA Finals but nothing else) is the one most likely to be turned off by perceptions that the league is overly “political.” Still: A 45 percent game one drop is a pretty massive one to attribute just to that. And also because ratings are down for everything in sports, not just the NBA; it is possible that horse-racing ratings have fallen because of politically outspoken equines, but it does strike one as unlikely.

There are too many sports right now, and our viewing habits are out of sync.

I cannot tell you, as someone who has had his life dictated by the sports calendar as long as he can remember, how weird it is that the NBA Finals are happening in October. As the Sports Media Watch tweet above noted, the sports that are out of season but still trying to catch up their 2020 seasons — NBA, NHL, golf, horse racing, Indy car-racing — are the ones suffering the biggest ratings falls. In the past, none of them had to compete with the NFL and college football, the two most watched on American television. This year, they do, as well as baseball and tennis and everything else. Is it possible the ratings of the past were simply as high as they were because there was no football on? It sure seems possible to me. This is the most logical answer all told.

No fans and other weirdness means the games don’t feel the same.

I believe any team that wins a championship in any sports this year absolutely deserves it as much as any champion ever; these circumstances are unprecedented and arguably more challenging than a “normal” year. But there is no question that there is a certain amount of mental gymnastics you must do to convince yourself these games are “real” and not simply glorified scrimmages played to manufacture digital noise. These games are different, and as much as I’ve enjoyed them (and as high quality as the play, particularly in the NBA, has been), the lack of fans and the overall strangeness that comes with sports right now (new schedules, unfamiliar venues) mean the games aren’t as compelling and captivating as usual. We watch sports to be entertained. Part of the entertainment package is the fans. Maybe we’re watching less because the product is lacking without them.

Maybe we’re all, you know, a little bit freaking preoccupied.

A pandemic sports maxim originally coined by New York Daily News columnist Jane McManus has become increasingly popular: “Sports are a reward for a functioning society.” As much as I respect McManus, this maxim strikes me as a bit of bunk: There have been sports all over the world, for centuries, in many, many malfunctioning societies, both in the United States and elsewhere. Sports are not a reward; they are just another thing that happens because they make money for people, whether the society is functioning or not.

But I do understand why the quip has gained cultural currency. It is basically a high-minded way of saying, “Uh, I have other shit on my mind right now.” Sports are a diversion from everyday life, but they are also a luxury item: Something for people who have the capital, the energy, and, most of all, the time to dedicate to them. And it’s fair to say that most of us are falling pretty short on all three of those these days.

We could very well be overintellectualizing all of this. The reason sports television ratings are down isn’t politics, or consumption habits, or game quality — or at least not exclusively all those things. They’re down because, if you haven’t noticed, the world is falling apart. Sports work best when they skew your perspective, when they fool you into thinking they are more important than they actually are. But it’s pretty tough to be fooled right now. It’s not that we’ve stopped caring about LeBron James and the NFL. It’s that we care about keeping the lights on and our sanity intact a little bit more.

Why Are Pandemic Sports Ratings So Terrible?