With virtually no live sports for 25% of the year—including the absence of games being played by the four major North American leagues—Nielsen is hardly surprising that the return was met with a thunderous applause, and the share of viewing among Americans quickly picked up in September and October. Salivating after the absence, sports fans also reveled in being able to watch games and matches across the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL at the same time. Despite the demand and the rebound, however, the share of live sports viewing remains below 2019 levels.
According to NIelsen, live sports is one of the few genres that draws in fans as it happens, but 2020 has presented consumers with an abundance of binge-worthy content to choose from. News about the pandemic, rising instances of social justice and a presidential election have all stolen share from live sports, as has the rise of subscription video on-demand (SVOD) content.
Some of the viewership declines have been due to pandemic-related factors, such as limited out-of-home viewing and abridged sports schedules. The share of viewing for live sports also reflects the overall decline in decreased linear TV viewing year-to-date. It’s a trend that has been rising over the past five years. That factor aside, however, the many aspects that characterize 2020 overall have eroded some interest in live sports viewing, as the number of people 2 and older who watched sports in September and October was notably lower this year than last year (70.8% reach vs. 77.7% reach). And while heavy-viewing 18-24 year olds and 55 and older consumers provide a bright spot across viewing, the remaining group (medium and light sports viewers) of all ages are driving the biggest viewership declines.
The other notable shift across the sports world is the same one that has upended the overall media landscape: digital consumption. The continual addition of new platforms and channels will automatically have an eroding effect on existing options, and sports is no exception. For example, we tracked an annual increase of 11 million consumers aged 25-54 across the top five digital sports platforms in September. That 6% digital unique audience lift illustrates that even live sports isn’t immune to media fragmentation.