Los Angeles Lakers vs Miami Heat game in Orlando, Florida on September 30. The NBA has been hit by steep ratings falls, with audiences for the conference finals down 35% on last year
The NBA has been hit by steep ratings falls, with audiences for the conference finals down 35% on last year © USA TODAY Sports

After four months with virtually no live programming, sports are now crowding US television schedules, splintering ratings for marquee championships as networks scramble to recoup advertising sales lost earlier in the pandemic.

Last month each of the US’s top four professional sports leagues — American football, basketball, baseball and hockey — as well as the Women’s National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer, all played games on the same day, a historic first, according to US media analysts MoffettNathanson.

“How cool is it to be able, on a weekend, to watch literally within hours, the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, college football, US Open tennis, [and] a major golf tournament?” said John Donahoe, chief executive of Nike, rattling off the American leagues and championships in succession during an earnings call last month. 

But the deluge of programming, and the scheduling shift in some games from earlier in the year after pandemic-imposed delays, means sport fans now have to choose between watching playoff basketball and American football for the first time. The NBA and the National Hockey League in particular have suffered steep declines in TV audiences. 

Viewing figures for the NBA’s conference finals fell 35 per cent compared with last year, while for the six-game Stanley Cup NHL championship series completed on Monday, audiences fell 61 per cent, according to SportsMediaWatch. Viewership for both series were compared with games held in the spring of 2019; this year they were scheduled head-to-head with traditionally higher-rated NFL games.

Playoffs for the NBA and NHL typically benefit from higher overall TV audiences in April and May, which may also be a factor in the declines.

Weekly newsletter

Scoreboard is the Financial Times’ new must-read weekly briefing on the business of sport, where you’ll find the best analysis of financial issues affecting clubs, franchises, owners, investors and media groups across the global industry. Sign up here.

“Not only are more sports being played currently than in a typical year, they are airing during a time of the year with especially low television usage,” according to MoffettNathanson. “With only so many eyeballs to go around, the leagues have been forced to compete for attention.”

Meanwhile, networks that carry live sports are hoping to recoup steep losses from the spring. Turner Broadcasting, a division of AT&T’s Warner Media and one of the NBA’s rights carriers, has said its advertising revenue in the first six months of the year fell 30 per cent to $1.8bn because of the disruption of the sports schedule.

It is unclear how the unprecedented scheduling situation, or the decline in TV audiences, may affect marquee postseason advertising sales: in 2019, the NBA postseason generated in $932m in advertising revenues, according to Kantar Media Intelligence.

As 2020 is an election year, networks are also competing for campaign advertising, with live sports programming a typically attractive route for parties to target potentially millions of eyeballs at once. Early advertising data show campaigns buying ads against sports are spending on subscription cable, more so than free-to-air broadcast networks, according to Lauren Williams, an account manager for Advertising Analytics.

A sign supporting US president Donald Trump
Sports programming is traditionally an attractive route for election campaign ads © AFP /AFP via Getty Images

Using data from the completed 2018 election cycle, Advertising Analytics and Nielsen Ratings ranked various sports programmes by their cost per one thousand viewers for a 30-second campaign advertisement.

For adverts aired in Minneapolis, a competitive market in a swing state, they found that daytime Sunday NFL games were generally the most cost-effective, ranging between $29 to $183 per thousand viewers, while Saturday college football games ran from $188 to $865.

Data for the 2020 cycle is incomplete, but from September 1, rates in the same market run between $20 to $194, Ms Williams said.

US sports started to return from pandemic-enforced shutdowns in July but coronavirus outbreaks are still affecting schedules: this week, the NFL postponed its first game because of positive results among the Tennessee Titans, and dozens of college football games have so far been postponed. 

Executives in the broader sports industry are cautiously optimistic that league play can continue, as it did for Major League Baseball which postponed several games earlier this year because of Covid-19 and has since proceeded to the playoffs.

Mr Donahoe of Nike, which has outfitting agreements with three of the four major pro leagues, said he hoped the return of sports would filter through to help raise sales. 

“Does it cascade down to college and high school and youth? I say my prayers every night, I hope so,” he said. “You watch a game on TV, you want to go out for a run, right? You go shoot baskets in the driveway.”

Get alerts on Travel & leisure industry when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article