Something is happening with live sports viewership this fall: All the major pro sports have seen significant declines compared to last year, even as the coronavirus outbreak keeps millions at home.
According to Nielsen numbers, the 2020 World Series on Fox was the least watched ever, down 32% from the previous record low in 2012; the 2020 NBA Finals on ESPN were down a whopping 51% from last year; the NHL Stanley Cup Finals on NBC were down 61% from last year.
Even the NFL, which remains the last remaining sure bet in live TV, more watched than anything else, was down 12% through the first five weeks of its season. (The WNBA was a lone exception, up 13% for its season.)
Yet according to Jason Wright, the new president of the National Football League’s Washington Football Team, the explanation for the sports ratings dip is not so simple — especially as the pandemic, social unrest, and a polarizing election distract and divide viewers.
“If I understood what was going on, I wouldn’t be in this job, I’d be rich,” Wright, the first Black NFL team president in the league’s history, joked to Yahoo Finance in an interview on Friday. “I think consumer consumption of media and entertainment is changing. Covid is changing our psychology and the way we engage, as fans of sports and more broadly.”
Wright added that, regardless of the current numbers, he sees the NFL season as giving sports fans a sense of normalcy in an otherwise wild and stressful year.
“We can engage fans and engage the public better when we can give some sense of consistency and normalcy in what is an up and down world,” Wright said.“So, while ratings are down, I do think the constant drumbeat of the football season should actually provide something better over time, and I expect fan engagement and viewership to go up over time. But we’re all learning together about what this is doing to consumer psychology.”
No stay at home boost for football
Thus far, the ‘stay at home’ effect boosting streaming platforms has eluded the NFL, which didn’t see a year-over-year ratings gain until until Week 6 of its season. In Week 7, viewership dropped again, bringing the overall decline to 8% this season so far.
Sunday marks the start of the last week of games before the presidential election. And like it did in 2016, the NFL is telling team owners the election is to blame for the ratings dip.
But it may not be that simple, as the stress of the pandemic, or the fact that all the sports came back at once, or the strangeness of watching games devoid of fans in the stands, may all be playing a factor.
Nielsen and other TV trackers may also be failing to measure fully the impact of streaming and other modern forms of online engagement. Fox NFL reporter Erin Andrews made a similar point on Yahoo Finance when asked about the ratings trend earlier this month: “The one thing we were looking forward to with Fox and getting back on air is football is a way to connect you with your family and your friends, and people are dying for that connection right now, they want it so badly,” she said.
Reinventing Washington’s culture
Wright has said a lot since taking the job about his goal of reinventing the culture of the team formerly known as the Redskins, which has suffered through a years-long playoff drought and come under fire for sexual harassment in its corporate culture.
“Success for us, and for me, is all about culture and people,” Wright said. “We’ve got to establish a great leadership team in the Washington Football Team, we’ve got to establish a hyper-professionalized organization, and we’ve got to get moving on a new name and identity and a new home, and that requires really understanding our fans in a deeper way than we do today.”
On Election Day, the NFL will use a number of stadiums as voting centers — including FedEx Field, where the Washington team plays.
The league has also encouraged players to promote social justice this season with names and phrases on the backs of helmets. Some critics have called these steps political, which could be playing a small role in the ratings dip across sports.
But Wright argues that “all the push on social justice, all the push on healthcare, all the different things that have come from the NFL and from teams, are explicitly nonpartisan. So it’s my hope that... irrespective of who is in the White House, we can continue to push these things, because to me they are unambiguously good.”
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.