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Can TV Networks Fully Recover when Major Sports Leagues Resume?

Sports fans are eagerly anticipating the return of live MLB this weekend, as well as the NBA and NHL next week. TV sports networks are no doubt hoping the resumption of these content staples will go far to curb the viewership challenges they’ve faced since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all major league sports back in March. That said, a lot has changed over the past four months. While many sports fans sat at home with an abundance of media time on their hands, but no live sports to fill it, viewing habits across networks, content types, platforms and devices have shifted considerably. 

What does this mean for sports networks as live league play begins to resume? Let’s look at how sports networks have been coping the past few months, and what their results tell us about the path to recovery. 

Sports Networks Take Heavy Viewer Losses

Following the widespread lockdowns, which included major league sports cancellations back in March, Samba TV monitored viewer patterns to understand how the TV landscape has been shifting throughout the pandemic. In one of our recent analyses on the state of television viewing, we focused on sports programming. 

Not surprisingly, without live televised games, sports networks suffered massive viewership losses. In the 90 days between the end of January and the end of March, each of the nine top cable sports networks lost more than 25 percent of their audiences. The sum of these audience losses totaled more than 20 million households—the single largest decrease in viewership recorded. This enormous viewership decline represented the largest factor pulling down cable’s audiences overall. 

Creative Content Survival Strategies Emerge

In the face of live sports cancellations, sports networks turned to documentaries and competitions to draw back millions of households. Take ESPN, for example. On Sunday, April 12, ESPN aired a live HORSE competition between former and current NBA and WNBA stars. Nearly 1 million households tuned in to watch the first round of the competition, which drove up total viewership by more than 600 percent from the same time slot one week prior.

A week later, on April 19, the first two episodes of ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” premiered—and to a tremendous response. Episode 1 saw 3.5 million U.S. households tune in to watch, and Episode 2 delivered an audience of 3 million U.S. households. This represented a more than 10-fold increase in viewership for the same ESPN timeslot the night before (April 18) and a more than three-fold increase in viewership for the same ESPN timeslot the week before—April 12, when the NBA HORSE challenge aired. Importantly for ESPN, households with income greater than $100,000 over-indexed by 22 percent compared to the U.S. overall.

ESPN hasn’t been the only network to score wins during the pandemic. WWE continued to drive viewership with frequent programming. The network aired seven major new episodes—Friday Night SmackDown on FOX and Monday Night RAW on USA—from mid March to mid April, averaging 1 million U.S. households each. Likewise, in May, NASCAR made its return to racing on FOX and has had strong ratings. Viewership for the July 12th NASCAR race in Kentucky had 1.43 million U.S. households tune in, and the July 19th race in Texas had 1.46 million U.S. households. 

Where Do We Go from Here? 

While some sports networks have managed to sustain some momentum during the pandemic, even in the absence of live league sports, a lot of questions remain about what’s to come. As athletes get back on the field, will baseball, basketball, and hockey drive ratings through the roof? The networks certainly hope this will be the case among sports-hungry fans, but it’s far from a certainty. 

In the past four months, overall TV viewership has evolved, with sports fans discovering new ways to access programming. How these new patterns and behaviors translate to their consumption of live sports programs in the future remains to be seen. The massive viewership losses that sports networks experienced back in March could forecast future risks to cable’s hold on audiences once the current crisis subsides—or it could prove to be a brief blip on the radar for networks if fans rush back to a much-missed “normal” with sports viewing.


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