There’s a word to describe the past year for sports on TV: brutal. NFL ratings declined. Sports debate programs were down year over year. NBA games on regional sports networks are down. A Clippers-Bulls matchup was the league’s lowest-rated broadcast network game in a decade, and, unlike the last one, it was not aired against the NCAA Tournament.
Fewer people are watching sports. Politics is playing some role. Donald Trump without question has been a distraction. Sports networks/leagues will hope that’s all that is occurring. Because it’s worth noting Premier League ratings have been down by a similar amount in the U.K. without Trump present.
Something broader is happening. Check out this comment from a BT Sports executive about the Premier League.
“The viewing figures we see on social media are really, really massive,” he said. “One third of 15 and 16-year-olds don’t watch linear TV at all.”
That second part, if true, should terrify the sports industry. A third of teenagers are not watching TV? Those teenagers are the target demographic for advertisers in a few years. That’s the core paying audience in a decade or two. You could say “well, that’s in Britain.” But, Americans are even more obsessed with their smartphones.
Sports rights values have skyrocketed over the past decade. That is because sports runs in contrast to where entertainment is heading. You still need to watch it live and sit through the commercials. Networks have committed billions to leagues and put games on TV as much as possible in an attempt try to recover those billions.
But, the flip-side of that is sports is running counter to where entertainment is heading. It’s the last vestige of the outmoded cable model. It’s mass-market. It happens at a specific time. It takes forever. There’s no guarantee it will entertain you. Even if sports leagues do get hip on “social,” that’s not an optimistic outlook long-term. The audience may no longer be there.
Hooking people while they are young is important. Adults now have a deep connection with sports from childhood. They collected cards. They memorized stats. They stayed up late on school nights to watch the World Series. When leagues weren’t in season, they may have been holding their own season with a notebook and a miniature basketball hoop. That pre-broadband world no longer exists. There are far more outlets for attention. How many kids get that hooked on watching professionals plays sports?
Imagine creating a sport from scratch that would appeal to young people now. It would look nothing like the NFL or MLB. It wouldn’t even be a sport. It would be a video game. Because playing the game would be more engaging than watching it. Yes, kids may be playing league-branded properties such as Madden or FIFA, but they are forming connections to Madden or FIFA.
Even adult fans are not immune. You can curate your own entertainment precisely to your own taste on multiple devices whenever you want. Why are you organizing your life around a televised sporting event? Especially one that’s not your team or not featuring A-list stars. Do you care about watching two dudes “debate” about it during the offseason? A lot of what’s keeping sports alive may just be routine.
Empires don’t crumble in a day. The British Empire effectively died when Britain went into debt financing World War I. It lingered for decades, even reaching its greatest height regarding land area and population after the war. But, the trend moving away from overt Imperialism was ever present, and the cracks became progressively more visible.
If the professional/major college sports “bubble” had burst it would not be a sudden cataclysm. We’d see a slow trickle of declining ratings and falling subscription to sports networks. Ancillary events would be affected first, before the major ones. We’d see telling signs like say college students at major programs showing up late to football games or not showing up at all to see the team beat Overmatched State.
Sports is big business. It’s not going away anytime soon. But, the practical discussion has shifted from growing sports audiences to maintaining them. And we’re only on the cusp of even greater changes such as a viable cord-cutting model or advertisers being able to track how much viewers are watching the first screen during events.
Fans will be there when the Cubs finally win or when LeBron plays Steph and Durant. What happens when the Detroit Pistons are mediocre and no one has a cable subscription?