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How Sports TV Viewership Is Changing

Dan Taitz
2/11/2019

The way we watch TV shows and movies has been forever transformed by mobile devices and the video-on-demand industry. But another surprising consequence of these developments is that the way people consume sports content is also dramatically shifting. This change may raise concerns about the future of sports media, but it actually points to countless new opportunities to engage fans in new ways -- and to create a more seamless viewer experience.

Live broadcasting has been the bread and butter of sports viewership for decades. In fact, the live nature of sports TV is part of what makes it so compelling to watch: it's almost like being right there in the stadium. But nowadays even marquee events like the Super Bowl can struggle to capture attention. This year's big game saw its lowest viewership in ten years, down 5% from the 2018 Super Bowl. This may be partly due to the fact that the game itself was uneventful -- but the downward trend of Super Bowl ratings in recent years shows it's also because sports viewership is moving away from real-time viewing and changing in a few big ways. (See Super Bowl LIII Streams Draw Average Audience of 2.6M .)

1. The sports industry is increasingly struggling with short attention spans, especially with millennial fans.
An October 2017 report from McKinsey found that ratings for sports TV have dropped, but not because fewer people are tuning in. "Overall reach for sports on TV hasn't declined; ratings have dropped because fans are watching fewer and shorter sessions," the report said. "In a world with so many sports options across so many screens, sports fans of all ages are clicking away from low-stakes or lopsided games."

McKinsey also found that many viewers -- especially millennials -- are engaging with their favorite sports and teams in alternative ways, including unauthorized streams on sites like Reddit and through social media. These new ways of engaging present opportunities for sports networks to draw in these fans with new subscription deals that make pirating less appealing and social media promotions that increase the loyalty of fans there.

In fact, the NBA recently embraced social by making its minor league games available on social streaming platform Twitch. "Between chat and all of the interactivity around it, We saw an 8X lift in time spent,” said NBA digital product manager Michael Allen at NAB NY 2018.

2. Fans are no longer content to engage with their favorite teams simply by watching games.
More and more, sports viewers are engaging with supplemental content instead of -- or in addition to -- the games themselves. A report released by Google in January 2018 showed that viewers are increasingly seeking out videos of top game moments, with an 80% increase of sports "highlights" video views on YouTube. There was also a 60% jump in viewership of sports "interview" videos on YouTube.

This shows that fans are using OTT video to catch up on games they missed, revisit their favorite game moments and get more insights on what went down. It also demonstrates that networks and leagues can potentially reach fans who may not be able to catch every game, or who may seek out sports-related content in off hours.


Light Reading is back at NAB 2019 for a special breakfast workshop, Getting to OTT 2.0. This forum tackles the most pressing issues facing video providers as they seek to manage and monetize their new streaming services. See you on April 8 in Las Vegas – all NAB attendees and communications service providers get in free!


The increase in views of non-game sports content also may explain the drop in ratings -- and shows that just because viewers are less likely to continue engaging with a boring game, it doesn't mean they care about the outcome any less. In other words, fans aren't disengaging, they're just engaging differently. It's crucial that sports media providers optimize their offerings to appeal to this new way of viewing, by offering supplemental OTT content themselves.

3. People are watching sports on digital more than ever.
During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Fox Sports saw a number of digital users tuning in to watch that was 15% to 20% higher than they had predicted, according to a recent panel discussion at NAB NY 2018. Fox had put all of its pre and post-game coverage on its Fox Sports app, in addition to the live games, and they found people tuning in in large numbers, even during working hours. The digital turn of sports viewing gives content providers new ways, and new times, to reach viewers. Fans no longer need to be in front of a television to engage with their favorite leagues, teams and players.

Yet, this shift means the need for seamless digital experiences are more important than ever, too. Fans may be turning to digital for streaming and pre and post-game content. But given the overall decreasing attention span, providers must ensure their viewers don't experience buffering, annoying ads and other distractions that may turn them away from the digital experience as well.

Video-on-demand may never be able to replace the live thrill of watching a game in real time: but that's not the point. Instead, OTT and video-on-demand can help address some of the problems live sports broadcasting is facing in an increasingly attention-deficit world. If done right, these new developments will ensure new digital-centric generations keep engaging and enhance the sports viewing experience overall.

Live viewing may be the number one preference for many sports viewers, but the ability to watch later will always have an important use case to fill. Plus, sports-adjacent content like highlights and interviews can help keep users engaged beyond the games themselves. Video-on-demand can help make games and related content even more easily accessible, so fans can access sports anytime and anywhere they go. If networks and leagues prioritize video-on-demand, including mobile video, new digital-first generations will stay engaged and have a better-than-ever sports viewing.

— Dan Taitz, President and COO, Penthera

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