Why Are Sports Viewing Figures Falling?

Despite overall popularity, why are fewer people watching?


If there could be one criticism leveled at the NFL, it certainly wouldn’t be a lack of popularity. The competition is the US’ biggest and most lucrative professional sports league, with sponsorship and TV rights deals shoveling cash into the nation’s favorite sport. It’s the incredible popularity of the league that makes the precipitous dip in ratings so surprising. In the first six weeks of the NFL season, viewership has dipped by a staggering 11%.

The recent Sunday Night Football matchup between the Colts and the Texans drew ‘just 12.9 million viewers,’ according to the Guardian, representing a 38% drop on last year’s week six game and the lowest SNF rating since 2011. The dip’s been felt across all Sunday night games, and the news has prompted a widespread search for the cause, with myriad theories touted. Some have blamed a declining quality of play - a problem that’s been discussed for years, now - while others have blamed the presidential debates for stealing the limelight. Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest may or may not have affected the ratings, and a series of fairly uninspiring match-ups have also contributed.

Essentially, though, the dip in ratings comes down to broadcasters not doing enough to deliver a quality product to their customers at an affordable price. When the cost of the rights to televising games goes up, the cost to the customer goes up with it, and fans are finding alternatives, often free, ways of watching their teams in action. Figures on the number of fans using illegal streams to watch live sports are naturally difficult to pin down, but the phenomenon could go some way to explaining the dip in viewing figures in both the US’ and the UK’s most popular sports. Because higher prices have coincided with a perceived dip in the quality of the product of both the NFL and, to an extent, the Premier League, the two fanbases are finding ways around expensive subscriptions.

If you examine the studies done on the ‘missing viewers,’ then a demographic takes shape - it’s largely blue-collar workers from lower-income households, according to Warc. I.e. those who may previously have had subscriptions with major broadcasters but who would see the benefit in saving cash and streaming the games instead. The average viewer cares very little that CBS and NBC pay what equates to about $45 million per game; if the subscription doesn’t provide enough value to the customer they’ll find other ways to get the content.

A similar problem is plaguing viewing figures for the UK’s Premier League. The two primary broadcasters - Sky and BT - signed a deal worth £5.1 billion for the rights to Premier League games from 2016 to 2019, a game changing sum representing a 70% increase on the previous agreement. As a result, the companies have been forced to continue upping their prices to offset the outlay, and now a new Sky customer is expected to spend £42 a month for the right to watch most - but crucially not all - Premier League games.

The UK broadcasters pay around £10.2 million per match for their rights, but a  revealing piece by the Guardian showed just how prevalent illegal streaming is among soccer fans. Fans are already accustomed to finding overseas streams thanks to the 3pm blackout - UK broadcasters cannot show Premier League games starting at 3pm on Saturdays. When subscriptions to the major broadcasters become genuinely unaffordable for many, the option of streaming every game becomes a lot more appealing. There are without doubt a multitude of factors contributing to the decline, and indeed it could prove to be an anomaly if figures pick up again later in the season. Illegal streaming will be a worry for sports broadcasters, though, given the astronomical fees paid for the rights to the games - improvements to the product and a clamp down on the sites catering for illegal streaming are the most viable solutions.

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