The Decline in Pandemic Sport Viewership

Sport viewership is down across the board compared to pre-pandemic times. Lots of people have been quick to explain the decline with various forms of mood affiliation (sports have become political, no fans in the audience etc). The preliminary data suggests something much more complicated (and multi-factorial) is at play.

I think this is an interesting question because merely thinking through potential factors influencing the change in sport viewership will help us better understand so many fascinating questions about society.

Data (compared to 2019):

  • US Open (golf) final round: down 56%
  • US Open (tennis) was down 45% and the French open is down 57% so far
  • Kentucky Derby: down 43%
  • Indy 500: down 32%
  • Through four weeks, NFL viewership is down approximately 10%
  • NHL Playoffs were down 39% (Pre Stanley Cup playoffs was down 28% while the Stanley Cup was down 61%).
  • NBA finals are down 45% (so far). Conference finals were down 35%, while the first round was 27% down. To match the viewership, activity on the NBA reddit fan community is also down 45% from the NBA finals last year (per Owen Phillips).
  • MLB viewership is also down but I’m having a difficult time finding good data.
  • It is unclear if this is just an American phenomena. Tour de France was up 73% in Europe. Toronto Raptors playoff viewership (compared to 2019 when they won a championship) was up 26% in Canada. It appears as if European football is also up across the board. Indian Cricket was up 15% in its first week.

Common Explanations That Are Probably Incomplete

The data suggests the story is more complicated than a lot people think.

It’s unlikely politics is the major cause of the decline in viewership as sports that have not been political experienced similar declines to sports that have been more political. The lack of engagement on the NBA reddit, a demographic that is very supportive of the league’s political messaging, is strong evidence there is something else going on.

It’s unlikely rescheduling is the major cause of the decline in viewership as sports that followed their normal schedule experienced similar declines to sports that were forced to be rescheduled.

It’s unlikely the lack of fans in the audience is the major cause of the decline in viewership as sports that are less fan involved experienced similar declines to sports more dependant on fan engagement.

It’s unlikely scheduling conflicts is the major cause of the decline in viewership as sports that aired without increased competition experienced similar declines to sports that aired with more competition.

Possible Additional Factors

  • Sports are a very social. People love talking about sports with their peers and without interacting with as many people, people have less opportunities to talk about sports with others. This has the effect of making fans feel less engaged and more casual fans less likely to start watching, creating a cascading effect on engagement.
  • Watching sports is a great way for people to tune out, relax and distract themselves from normal life. With so many people working from home, having a less defined break from work to non-work, and potentially working less hard, watching sports feels like less of an escape than it used to.
  • People have started consuming politics like they do sports and their interest in sports has been cannibalized by political fanaticism.
  • Lots of people are experiencing mental health challenges and struggling and don’t have the same interest in things they used to enjoy like sports.

My best guess is the drop in pandemic sport viewership is a combination of many of these factors, but beyond making that general statement, I really don’t know what is really driving the drop.

I would love to hear what you think.