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Sports are Coming Back. Are the Fans?

Regardless of one's political persuasion or stance on athletes speaking out about their own, it's safe to say that social justice activism on the court or the field repels more viewers than it attracts.

Sports are back. Are you watching?

Millions of Americans are, but the numbers are down from a year ago. The declining trend is not new, but the rate of decline is. Overall, the NFL’s kickoff weekend only saw a three percent dropoff in viewership versus 2019. That number was buoyed by the Fox telecasts of the NFL golden child, Tom Brady, making his Tampa debut versus the New Orleans Saints. The Fox regional telecasts that preceded “Brady versus Brees” were also up. NBC and CBS did not fare nearly as well. NBC’s primetime Thursday and Sunday night games were down 12% and 15% respectively, while CBS’s regional games were also down 12%.

The first big Saturday of college football did even worse. Nine of the 12 nationally televised games were down anywhere from the 30% – 65% versus the same timeslots from opening weekend of 2019. The big outlier was Notre Dame’s ACC debut versus Duke, which drew a whopping 140% more eyeballs year over year.

It’s not just football; NBA first round playoff ratings were down 27% from last year and 40% from 2018. Understandably, the league’s ratings have improved as the playoffs have progressed, but they still aren’t resonating with fans at their usual pace.

To be sure, part of the decline is that there have never before been so many major professional sports to watch at one time. The NBA and NHL seasons should have ended months ago, but due to the pandemic-driven suspension of the seasons, their playoffs are now going head to head with not just their typical rivals, MLB and NASCAR, but also with the juggernaut NFL, college football and recently, the US Open. A fan can only watch so much, especially when games run simultaneously, like the NBA and NFL did over the weekend. That’s a battle the NFL will win every time.

But the lost ratings are about more than just the dilution of the fan base from having more sports to watch. It’s about an increasingly dispassionate attitude from fans, driven in large part by social justice crusading by the athletes. A recent Harris poll shows that 39% of NBA fans say they are watching fewer games. Almost 40% of those watching less say it’s because the league has become “too political.” More than a quarter of them said the lack of fans in the arenas makes games less exciting, and one in five said the NBA’s association with China is a turnoff.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion or stance on athletes speaking out about their own, it’s safe to say that social justice activism on the court or the field repels more viewers than it attracts. That’s not to say that athletes should “shut up and dribble” or should be scorned for not “staying in their lane.” But the very public demonstrations at televised sporting events do tend to suppress many fans’ appetites for the games themselves. That’s particularly true when fans perceive hypocrisy or cherry-picking of social causes by millionaire athletes. Protesting the killing of George Floyd or the idea of police brutality toward Blacks is not all that controversial. Doing so while remaining silent about murdered police officers, looted storefronts and Chinese forced labor camps is more than enough to draw the ire of a politically or socially minded fan.

One of the countless impacts of the coronavirus pandemic is that it forced the sports-loving public to take a break from its passion. NCAA conference tournaments were stopped between rounds. At least one game was abandoned at halftime. March Madness became March Sadness when the tournament was canceled. The NBA and NHL seasons were halted and Major League Baseball’s opening day was postponed for months. As a die-hard college basketball fan, I was left stunned and disappointed. But life moved on. People found other things to do – mostly inside their homes – to fill the void left by the cessation of sports. Many fans could not wait for the games to resume. Others simply lost interest. When the games did return, protests, kneeling and political expression came with them. Certainly if a fan disagrees with the players’ demonstrations, their enthusiasm can wane. But even some fans who share the ideology being displayed on the back of a jersey, or espoused by a team or player, may find themselves watching less sports. Fans watch because they love the game, the competition, but also because it’s an escape from the politics, the injustices, the news cycles, the noise. Many fans are now being sucked into what they tune into games to get away from, and they don’t like it.

A 2016 study found that sports fans are generally split about 50-50 between conservatives and liberals, but that those considered “intense” sports fans are more likely to lean to the right. Those fans place more value on the military and the notion of making your own financial way in life, and tend to be more likely to be offended by expressions inconsistent with those ideals. Basketball fans are an exception, with more of those fans leaning leftward.

Some sports leagues could face harsh economic realities that extend far beyond the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Teams are taking a financial hit now with loss of ticket sales and concessions revenue. If viewers continue falling off – like NBA fans did by 40% from 2012 – 2020 – those huge TV contracts won’t be so huge when it’s time to renew. The college model is hardly comparable to that of the pros, but if the revenue losses and cutbacks at the college level are in any way a foreshadowing of things to come in the pro ranks, there’s trouble brewing. Colleges around the country have been permanently cutting sports at an alarming rate this year. They’ve seen ticket sales in their main revenue sport – football – dry up and many schools have seen a big dropoff in booster donations. When COVID restrictions are eventually lifted in full, stadiums and arenas still may not be for quite some time, as fans won’t soon forget their fears of breathing the exhalations of strangers.

So this is a perilous time for professional sports. Nobody is suggesting the NFL, NBA or MLB will close up shop, but it’s hard to imagine salaries continuing to climb, or staying at current levels, if even a modest number of fans give up the habit.

On the anniversary of 9/11, I was reminded of a moment when the nation rallied together for a sporting event after a national tragedy. President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch of game three of the 2001 World Series. The fact that it was a perfect strike, thrown with great confidence and style by a man wearing a bullet proof vest under an FDNY jacket is secondary to the collective chill felt by fans of all political stripes on that crisp New York evening.

Contrast that with the image of NBA players taking a knee during the national anthem on 9/11 and it’s not hard to see why viewership is down.

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