Should YOU care about the fact that TV ratings are down?

College football TV ratings are down. So are ratings for a bunch of other sports. Does that matter? For most of you, probably not!

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Good morning, and thanks for your continued support of Extra Points.

There’s a decent chance you’ve heard the news about the college football TV ratings. Specifically, they’re just not very good! Compared to last season, not nearly as many people are tuning in.

Of course, one might argue that nothing about this season ought to be compared to last season. For one, two of the major conferences aren’t even playing. Ohio State may very well be the single biggest national TV draw in the country, and Penn State and Michigan aren’t far behind. A season without them, and one light on big games early on, is likely to struggle.

But college football isn’t the only sport that is struggling to attract TV views. It would appear that virtually everybody, outside of the WNBA and some PGA Tour events, is facing significant ratings decline.

The fact that a decline in ratings is nearly universal should help put the stupid “fans are turned off by athlete activism!!!” trope. After all, nobody would confuse the NFL, Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby, or professional golf as bastions for political activism, and all of them faced bigger rating drops than the NBA regular season. Nobody is angry that the horses have insufficiently stuck to sports. I think.

So why is this happening? That’s complicated.

There are plenty of perfectly plausible theories, but a recent poll from Marist gives us some actual data to consider. According to the poll of 1,560 adults from September, while political reasons were listed as part of the equation, respondents gave plenty of other reasons for not watching quite as much live sports.

This Marist Poll also surveyed sports fans about the reasons for their decline in viewership. More than one in three sports fans (35%) report concerns over the coronavirus has resulted in a decrease in their watching live sports broadcasts. 21% of fans say the availability of other entertainment options is the reason they have tuned out, and one in five fans (20%) believe coverage of the 2020 election has taken precedence over live sports broadcasts. Additionally, 19% of sports fans attribute changes in the current rules and game experience to their decreased interest in watching broadcasts of live sporting events, and the same proportion (19%) report the amount of free time they have is the cause for a decline in watching.

Turns out, there’s a global pandemic! Lots of folks (like me, for example) have way less free time. They might be burned out from constant political news. They have been buried in the sheer number of live sports options, all happening at once. They might think that the product itself is less desirable because of COVID. There are lots and lots of reasons!

There’s potentially useful information buried in the demographic crosstabs here, but before we get too deep into the weeds, I think it’s important to ask.

Do TV ratings really matter for ME?

A lot of different people read Extra Points. Some of you are sitting conference commissioners, athletic directors, and broadcast industry employees. I am thankful for your readership, and I must admit, you probably should care about TV ratings. They directly impact your current and future earnings.

But most of you are not in that group.

If you’re a fan, do you benefit from improved ratings this year? Are you hurt if those ratings decline? Not really. Your program’s future media rights deal is not going to hinge on specific ratings in the most atypical year since the advent of cable television. If you’re a fan of a major program, there’s a good argument to be had that the massive windfall in recent TV money hasn’t really done anything to improve your specific experience anyway. Has your program used their TV money to add sports? To lower ticket or concession prices? Probably not!

Are you invested in TV ratings so you can make fun of your rivals? If so, I respect that hustle and devotion to pettiness, but since ratings are down nearly universally, it won’t be long before that other shoe drops for you. I recommend picking at other insecurities, like their university endowment or their embarrassing alumni.

Are you invested in ratings because you’re trying to make some political or cultural point? You’re probably making a bad argument.

The actual big worry? What if this isn’t just a blip on the radar? What if this is the new normal?

If THAT is true, then yes, we’re looking at substantial changes in the entire college sports landscape that would likely impact fans on some level. And we’ve written recently about the idea that Gen Z may not be as interested in sports, generally, as much as other generations. Via Yahoo!:

There is a more alarming possibility, or alarming for the sports industry, anyway. Perhaps it’s as simple as fewer people being into sports than there used to be. In the polling, the number of Americans who said they watched sports had dropped slightly from 60 to 57 percent, but the decline in fans for specific sports was far more noticeable. A 16 percent drop for both baseball and basketball in just a few years. A slide of about a quarter for both football and NASCAR. 

Maybe people are just less interested than they used to be. Nearly half of fans reported watching fewer sports broadcasts than they used to, especially in the older age category.

If you do work in this industry, I reckon THAT is the question that ought to worry you more than any underperformance in TV ratings for this particular season. That isn’t a political question or a question about WiFi or whatever else Pat Fitzgerald is angry about today. That’s a more structural question about the product itself.

I’m happy to keep digging into those questions. I’ll write about TV ratings too, but before you get all #mad #online about them, perhaps it’s worth investigating exactly why.

For most of you, it’s probably not really that big of a deal. And for everybody else, well, you didn’t need me to tell you that, right?

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I can be reached at MBrown@TheIntercollegiate.com, or at @MattBrownEP on Twitter dot com. If you haven’t already, come join us in Discord!

The Intercollegiate and Extra Points are proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.