As players kneel, are desperate audience walking away?
Over the past week it seemed a huge relief was coming over the country that was yearning for distractions away from the pandemic malaise. Major League Baseball made its official return a week ago and then this weekend more joy was experienced as both the NBA and the NHL restarted their seasons with expanded playoff formats. However something very curious was spotted as things ensued.
After some impressive television ratings for the restart of baseball there was a severe dropoff in the audience share as the week went forward. Likewise the NBA experienced a similar exodus of viewers. On the TNT Network a Lakers-Clippers matchup on a Thursday drew the second-highest numbers of the season. Over on the diamond 4 million had been around to watch the Yankees take on the Washington Nationals. But then something stark took place.
Following that initial surge there has been far less interest, as baseball games have been struggling to draw 1 million viewers and the NBA has barely done better, with 1.5 million being the new average. Of note is that both leagues have made very prominent efforts to display their social activism. Players have been uniformly kneeling for the national anthem, and fields and courts have been labeled with support for Black Lives Matter. There seems a possibility that a nation fatigued with social upheaval is hesitant to see that same outrage leeching over into the athletic diversions.
MLB really fell off after opening day. In general, both leagues aren't getting the audience one might expect from a nation that's been deprived of entertainment for months https://t.co/GazeoR9SNB
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) August 2, 2020
What makes this audience flight more surprising is when the debuts took place. Both baseball and basketball saw these large numbers on weekdays, and the subsequent drop in viewers was during the weekends, when you would expect more available eyes. It needs to be asked if the leagues have possibly repelled an eager audience? There are mitigating factors to consider.
With all the sports beginning to overlap there is an expected division of the audience, and those initial games were on exclusive national broadcasts, while later on the schedule regional telecasts became available. However those newer national numbers are a steep drop off and you have to look back at prior ratings to get a feel of things. The latest numbers are trending near or even lower than the average ratings from last season, and that speaks volumes. The NBA, for example, averages an audience of about 1.5 million per game.
You have both a more captive audience, with more people at home due to being out of work, and these are fans expected to be voracious for the sports they have been denied for months now. Add in the fans prevented from attending games and your core audience should be far greater than normal. To watch as the initial embracing of the games has eroded to normal levels and even below-par numbers speaks heavily. The NHL will be an interesting measurement in the coming weeks, as there has been significantly less activism on display and almost no players displaying anthem activism. That league also saw strong opening ratings so it could be the telling reality.
What the leagues will need to address is how to manage things if the TV audience falls short of needed levels. With a loss of live fans in the arenas the television revenue is sorely needed. In the NHL, for example, it has been estimated teams lose about $1.3 million each game that is not played. The ancillary revenues are also not being taken in, from branded products to licensing with advertising partners. The leagues need to foster as much goodwill as possible, but they appear more intent on displaying their woke signaling.
The NBA has been particularly vulnerable to this mindset. Beyond the phrases and posturing the league also allowed players to have socially conscious phrases on their jerseys, in place of their names. However there was a limit; the NBA provided a list of approved wording, and that mostly trended in one direction. For instance, no player would be permitted to have ‘’All Lives Matter’’ as his nameplate. Jimmy Butler ran into trouble one game when he tried to play with a blank jersey, a sign of equality. ”I’m no different than anyone else of color, and I want that to be my message,’’ he explained. He was forced to change to a uniform with his name on it.
The NFL should be watching things very intently. As of now that league is planning on playing games with either no fans, or possibly a limited capacity scenario. It has been estimated that the coming season without diehards in the seats could lead to losses league wide of over$ 5 billion. If they want to stem those losses with at least a healthy home audience then taking notes on how to avoid driving fans away should become a priority.