With the sports world having going dark more than a month ago due to COVID-19, wiping out college basketball’s March Madness, NBA and NHL playoffs and the start of baseball season, what’s a fan to watch now? (Here’s hoping the answer is not more H.O.R.S.E. tournaments.)
Nielsen tackled that consequential question in a new report Thursday that looked closely at March metrics, finding that live news, feature films and social media are helping to fill the void. The measurement firm found live TV viewing on Sunday among heavy sports viewers rose 24% from early to late March. Subscription video on demand viewing nearly doubled.
In a sign of how ingrained the habit remains, sports programming still accounted for one-tenth of viewing time on Sunday at the end of March, despite no live games. That appetite bodes well for ESPN’s Michael Jordan doc series, which debuts this Sunday night.
On March 8, on the Sunday before the NBA, NHL and NCAA suspended play, 9% of U.S. adults’ overall viewing time was devoted to sports events. In terms of ad dollars, though, the avidity of those viewers is hugely valuable. In 2019, Nielsen estimates, advertising on sports programming totaled $20 billion, nearly one-third of the total ad pie.
In the official category of “heavy sports viewers” (the most avid consumers of live sports events from February 10 to March 8), sports accounted for 26% of total viewing.
“Even though live sports are on hold, fans are hungry for content,” the Nielsen report argues. “That’s why it’s crucial that brands and sellers of media know where, how and what these consumers are viewing as a way to reach and maintain relationships with them.” One example it cited was NASCAR’s transition from real racing to virtual simulators, which managed to goose ratings.
Mobile, predictably, saw a steep drop (40%) in usage of sports-related apps given there are no bets to place or scores to check. Nevertheless, given the need to keep tabs on friends and family as well as the fast-moving news cycle, overall mobile use by sports fans ticked up 15 minutes per day, which was a bit below the overall average increase of 20 minutes for all adults.
Predictions for when recognizable sports might resume have been all over the map. Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that he sees no reason why Major League Baseball and college and pro football couldn’t play games (minus fans) by late summer. Other medical experts and government officials have been much more cautious, saying even gathering a small number of players, coaches and support staffs together risks spreading the coronavirus.
Here are a couple of Nielsen’s charts illustrating the sports-related trends in recent weeks: