Sports viewing still accounts for 10% of TV watching among diehard fans, according to Nielsen
The coronavirus pandemic may have benched all live sports for the foreseeable future, but sports fans are still getting their fix by watching old games.
According to Nielsen, diehard sports fans still spend 10% of their TV viewing on sports programming, whether its “SportsCenter” or re-airings of old Super Bowls. In the weeks since the global health crisis brought the sporting world to a screeching halt, many networks like ESPN and even the broadcast stations have taken to airing old games instead.
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Among “Heavy Sports Viewers,” which Nielsen describes as the segment in the top quintile of those who view live sports, watching old games accounted for 19% of their sports-viewing diet in the three weekends following the sports shutdowns. The NBA was first to suspend its season on March 11 after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. By the end of the weekend, all U.S. sports had been shut down.
Overall, re-airings of classic games accounted for 2% of “Heavy Sports Viewers” entire TV diet, and 1% among all adults. While ESPN declined to give any ratings for the old games it has been airing, CBS Sports told TheWrap it averaged 870,000 viewers for the 10 old NCAA March Madness games it aired in March in place of the 2020 Tournament.
CBS averaged 1.1 million viewers for its three re-airs of National Championship games on March 22.
Nielsen also found that, despite the lack of live sports, sports fans still were watching more TV amid “shelter-in-place” orders that have been enacted in most states — more than nine hours per day by the end of March. That represents a 10% increase since March 8, just before the shutdowns began. Overall, adults increased their viewing by 23% in that same time frame. At the end of last month, all adults over 18 were spending almost seven hours in front of the TV (compared to five hours at the beginning of March).
It is no surprise that news is making up more of consumers’ viewing time as they try to stay up to date on the pandemic, but sports fans are watching more of it than the average adults. Among the heavy sports-viewing segment, that share of news watching spiked from 10% pre-shutdown to 17%; for all adults, it rose to 15%. Among all adults, feature films on TV take up the largest time spent viewing (17%), which was the case before the pandemic hit.
Networks like ESPN have been hit hard by the sports shutdown. Earlier this week, ESPN asked its top 100 commentators to take a 15% pay cut, a few weeks after its executives saw their pay decrease by as much as 25%. According to estimates from MoffettNathanson, NBA coverage accounted for 11% of the time people spent watching ESPN in 2019, and accounted for 21% of its ad revenue, totaling $640 million. If the rest of the season were to get called off, MoffettNathanson estimates that ESPN’s parent company, Disney, would lose $481 million in ad revenue, when factoring in the losses ABC would incur for not airing playoff games or the NBA Finals.
Nielsen said that brands put close to $20 billion towards sports-related programming in 2019, with $17 million of that pegged to live events. They also put close to $1.2 billion toward digital advertising around sites related to sports, such as official league pages and fan sites.
The cancellation of March Madness cost CBS and Turner almost a $1 billion in ad revenue alone.
ESPN is about to get an oasis in the sports-free world with the debut of the highly anticipated docuseries “The Last Dance,” the 10-part series chronicling Michael Jordan and his final year with the Chicago Bulls, which debuts on Sunday. The series was moved up from its original premiere date in June, which was supposed to coincide with the now up-in-the-air NBA Finals.
It remains to be seen if any sports can return in the near future, with the pandemic still sweeping through the country.
The WWE got clearance to resume live shows after Florida deemed all sports facilities and its employees as “essential services” provided that it remains closed to the public. Major League Baseball is debating a plan that would allow for a truncated season to take place either split between Florida and Arizona (where the teams’ spring training complexes reside, as well as the Diamondbacks’ and Marlins’ stadiums). The UFC, which scuttled plans for a Saturday pay-per-view event to take place on Indian tribal land in California, is hopeful of returning to the octagon next month in some fashion.
Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., said “there’s a way of doing that” when it comes to playing sports in a contained, quarantined environment.
Whether or not sports return to the field anytime soon, it appears it won’t stop diehards from seeking out anything resembling a game.
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