Yes, politics appear to be playing a role in the enormous drop in viewership for some professional sports, if you trust those who responded to a Marist Poll released last week. But it’s not the biggest factor and far from the only factor.
And virtually all sports — including ones with no political messaging such as golf and tennis — have also experienced big ratings drops.
The most jarring takeaway from the Marist poll: 46 percent of self-described sports fans say they are spending less time watching live sports broadcasts than in the past.
“The antipathy to social causes can’t account for a drop this large; it’s a whole combination of factors,” says Dr. Zachary Arth, assistant professor of sports communication at Marist College. “Take baseball, where Democrats [38 percent] and Republicans [37 percent] identify themselves as fans in roughly the same proportions. The sport faces a similar reduction in popularity as basketball, where the fan base is more diverse and more likely to identify as Democrats.”
Asked if athletes speaking out on political issues has made them more or less likely to watch sports, 32 percent said it has made them less likely to watch sports, 21 percent said more likely and 46 percent said it has made no difference.
But there was one — and only one — factor that a greater percentage of people surveyed cited as a reason that has made them less likely to watch sports: coronavirus.
Thirty-five percent said concern about getting together with others to watch sports — due to COVID-19 — has made them less likely to watch sports.
After those two issues, the factors cited next most often for why people surveyed are less likely to watch sports now: other programming options besides live sports (21 percent said that made them less likely to watch live sports), all the news coverage about the presidential election (20 percent), changes to the game experience such as new rules (19 percent) and less free time (19 percent).
On the issue of athletes calling for social change, the sports viewership questions — predictably — broke along political lines.
Seventy percent of Republicans said they are less likely to watch live sports because of athletes’ calls for racial justice.
Conversely, 61 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Independents say athletes speaking out has not changed their viewing habits, while 31 percent and 24 percent, respectively, identified that as the reason for tuning in more often.
Also, 27 percent of Black sports fans said they are watching live sports broadcasts more because athletes are speaking out, compared with 17 percent of white fans.
And this was notable: 44 percent of NASCAR fans said they’re watching fewer sporting events because of athletes speaking out on political issues. But NASCAR is the only major pro sport, aside from the NFL, which has not had a major ratings drop.
According to Nielsen Voter Ratings, 28 percent of NBA viewers before the pandemic were Democrats and 11 percent Republicans, with the others identified as independent or unregistered.
After the restart, those numbers changed to 30 percent Democrats and 10 percent Republicans.
And there’s one other political issue impacting sports viewership that has nothing to do with athletes speaking out:
The aggregate prime time audience for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC on the first five nights of the 2020 NBA Finals was 78 percent higher than the first five nights of the 2019 Finals. Some of those 2019 Finals viewers instead likely opted to watch political news this year.
What’s clear is this: The drop in viewership for sports whose calendars shifted has been precipitous.
The 83 NBA postseason games this year averaged 3.0 million viewers, compared with 4.8 million for 82 games last year. That’s a 37 percent drop.
The six-game Lakers-Heat series averaged 7.5 million viewers, making it the least-watched NBA Finals ever (“beating” the 9.3 million for San Antonio-Cleveland in 2007) and down 49 percent from Toronto-Golden State last year, which averaged 15 million viewers.
Besides the aforementioned factors, competition with NFL games on six nights of the NBA’s postseason was particularly hurtful; the NBA lost each of those battles, most of them by large margins.
But the NBA was hardly alone. Look at these ratings percentage drops for other sports: Stanley Cup playoffs (38 percent), U.S. Open tennis (45), U.S. Open golf (42) and Kentucky Derby (43).
Baseball’s league championship series were the lowest-rated ever — down 30 percent from last year — despite both series going seven games. College football was down 30 percent entering last weekend.
NFL ratings were down 13 percent entering last weekend but performed well in Week 6.
Appearing on Megyn Kelly’s podcast, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said it’s “nonsense” to suggest politics hurt NBA ratings but conceded one problem: “The only way to get an NBA game was on cable or satellite. We’re right there in popularity. … The problem is our largest growing viewership base and the one we want to be our viewership base … doesn’t have regular TV to have our games.”
In the NBA’s defense, the average digital audience for nationally televised NBA games increased 34 percent compared to 2019.
In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols earlier this month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver suggested social justice messages aren’t going to be as noticeable moving forward as they were in the bubble this season.
“We’re completely committed to standing for social justice and racial equality,” Silver said. “It’s part of the DNA of this league. I would say in terms of the messages you see on the court on our jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time, when we began the discussions with the players and what we all lived through this summer.”
The NBA had “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the court and players were permitted to put social justice messages on the back of their jerseys when the league restarted this summer.
In Miami-Fort Lauderdale, the Heat’s NBA Finals ratings ranged, on average, from 8.7 to 13 percent of South Florida homes with TV sets, far below the Heat’s NBA Finals ratings during the Big 3 era, which generated numbers in the 30s.
Miami Dolphins’ local ratings remain in the 8 to 11 range, meaning 8 to 11 percent of Dade/Broward homes are watching games, on average. That’s a bit more than half of what they were midway through last decade.
One other note on the MLB/NBA comparison nationally: Baseball’s league championship series averaged fewer viewers than the NBA conference finals.
But per sportsmediawatch.com, Braves-Dodgers Game 7 on Sunday outdrew every game of the NBA season, including the six NBA Finals games. That’s the first time since 2007 than an LCS game outdrew any NBA Finals game. And Game 1 of the Dodgers-Rays World Series outdrew any of the Heat-Lakers NBA Finals games.
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