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Finding the Value of Live Sports in 2017—and Beyond

November 14th, 2017   ||    by Todd Wasserman

Live sports have been the cornerstone of TV programming since the 1960s when football ratings were so exceptional that network executives began looking for other sports to air. The dominance of live sports, particularly football, has held through the Internet era—even as younger generations began cord-cutting and migrating away from linear TV.

At least, that was the story until the 2016–2017 season, when NFL game ratings fell 9 percent during the regular season and 6 percent in the playoffs, according to Recode. And this year hasn’t been much better. As of mid-October, ratings for NFL games were down 7.5 percent, reports ESPN.

While football is the most conspicuous sport to lose ratings recently, it’s not alone. Ratings for this year’s baseball World Series fell 19 percent year over year, according to The Los Angeles Times.

While ratings are down overall (and younger people are tuning out sports more than previous generations), sports and live programming continue to dominate current TV viewership.

The New Reality for Sports

Addressing buyers at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) New York show in October, Mark Lazarus, chairman of broadcasting and sports at NBC, cited several reasons for the falling ratings, according to

Among the reasons Lazarus cited were a drop in viewership from the 18–34 demographic, competition from sports content on the Internet, and NFL protests, which he believes have politicized what had previously been a relatively apolitical form of entertainment. Lazarus argued the NFL ratings aren’t constant but vary from game to game—and he’s not convinced it’s a long-term trend.

But NBC has other worries. Thursday Night Football games are currently broadcast on two other venues: and Amazon. NBC is expected to start negotiations with the NFL about Thursday Night Football within the next 90 days. Lazarus’ strategy in this environment is to train people to follow sports rather than watch them, says MediaPost. Lazarus was speaking at least in part about social media, but “following” could also mean catching the highlights rather than watching the games live.

Parsing the trend further, The New York Times cited data that showed about 203 million people watched some part of the NFL regular season in 2016. That’s a 5 percent jump from 2015, but the numbers also show an erosion among hardcore fans and a rise in casual fans. That’s more fuel for Lazarus’ “following” strategy.

A Complex Picture

The drop in NFL ratings mirrors a general decline in TV ratings—though the NFL’s fall has lagged a few years. This delay means live football and other sports programming have remained dominant within a smaller overall pool of TV viewers.

An AdAge tally of ratings for the first half of 2017 showed that seven of the top 10 highest-rated shows during the period were NFL games. In fact, live programming dominated the list. The first scripted show, The Big Bang Theory, was number 32 on the list.

It looks as though the future of televised sports will be based more on casual fans and limited interactions. But such programming is likely to draw more live viewers than any other type—granting live sports a strong hand in a world of newer broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon. There’s no clear victor in such a scenario, but live sports programming could still be a winner for marketers looking to reach broad audiences both online and offline.

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