2020 was a hell of a rollercoaster for everyone, but perhaps those in the world of sports had the bumpiest ride. Sports — like practically every other industry in the world — was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, with athletes today commendably taking a greater interest in social issues, the leagues that employ them are increasingly expected to follow suit, and, for the most part in 2020, they did, while simultaneously dealing with the pandemic. Yet, any discussion about how those challenges affected the business of the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL inevitably revolves around one thing: TV ratings.
TV ratings have been around since about the 1950’s, and its primary function remains the same to this day: to provide a demographic measure. The real reason it exists, however, is to allow media companies to convert the attention their products draw into dollars. That has also not changed. This system makes a lot of sense when television sets existed in every household and computers and smartphones had yet to become the norm. If you wanted to watch the Super Bowl, there wasn’t a way for you to watch it without a TV.
That’s not the world we live in anymore. Today, I can watch NBA games on my phone via NBA League Pass. I can watch cable news on my computer through YouTube. I can watch TV shows on my tablet. The way we consume media is much more fragmented. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Some here, some there. (The increasing amount of streaming services sure isn’t helping.) You don’t have to be a media executive to comprehend how that fragmentation takes away from the strength of TV ratings as a measurement — a summation — of audience engagement.
TV ratings, primarily referred to as Nielsen ratings, have of course adapted to account for streaming viewership, but sports are an entirely different animal. Being a customer/consumer/fan of a league such as the NBA is no longer defined as just somebody who regularly tunes in to the games. Sure, that is the case for a significant segment of sports fans, but that’s no longer the only case. Some fans don’t watch games wire-to-wire, consuming games through clips and highlights. Some fans watch few games, but immerse themselves in NBA Twitter, fantasy basketball, and memes. Do they not “count” just because they don’t consume the league in the traditional sense?
Amidst last year’s NBA bubble, The Athletic published several articles with a notable concern about the NBA’s TV ratings. “The NBA returns: Big games, but not-so-large ratings”, one article is titled. A few weeks later: “Why the NBA has a serious viewership problem it needs to fix.” A few months later, the New York Times published “TV Ratings for Many Sports Are Down. Don’t Read Too Much Into It Yet.” In December, Forbes joined in, pondering “Why Sports TV Ratings Will Likely Still Suffer In 2021.”
Those concerns are not entirely unjustified. Live sports are the rare TV program that can be fairly relied upon to draw people to their TVs, and TV deals are still one of the biggest streams of income for sports leagues, so when those ratings go down, questions indeed should be asked. Sports leagues, like all businesses, exist to make money, so financial success is often the only kind of success that matters to those on the business side of sports, but TV ratings are not even a truly accurate summation of a league’s financial success.
Those articles published last year somewhat hide the fact that TV ratings have been steadily declining every year for about a decade, as are the TV ratings for everything as a result of cord-cutting. Those articles also don’t mention that league revenue for the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL have all been steadily increasing every year the last 20 years. So why are declining TV ratings so often framed as an existential threat to sports leagues? Sure, maybe player protests have turned a small segment of fans off and TV ratings have fallen, but does that really matter if the league’s revenue is still growing?
Part of the reason is that TV ratings are just something that has always been important. That should change with time. Part of it is that it’s not about the current TV deal, but the next TV deal. But as the media landscape continues to evolve, and streamers like Amazon Prime Video start moving into sports broadcasting, leagues will likely become less reliant on traditional TV deals. Leagues will likely also see more income as they continue learning to monetize their social media followings. Until then, though, pundits will continue to question the health of a league as its ratings ebb and flow. What are sports about if not the story of falling and rising?