The symbiotic relationship between television and sports can be complicated at times, particularly when it comes to the numbers. Some sports statistics are straightforward – e.g., the team that scores more points wins the game, teams that win more games make the playoffs, etc. Other comparisons are less conclusive, though. For example, the football team that won 12 games five seasons ago is not necessarily better than a team that earned 10 victories last season.
Television stats work much the same way. Comparisons made within the context of the current season can provide insight as to which networks and programs are attracting more viewers. But attempting to compare across seasons gets trickier. In TV as in sports, the players and situations change year to year. That is perhaps no more evident than this current season, which continues to elevate “unprecedented” to the top of any list of the year’s most-quoted buzzwords.
Advertising executive Tom McGovern, president of Optimum Sports, the sports media division of Omnicom Group, spoke to this challenge specifically as it relates to a professional basketball season that has extended well beyond Labor Day. “There is no proper context to compare the current NBA viewership post-COVID to any regular season,” McGovern told Variety. “You’ve got an increased number of broadcast windows and start times that are an anomaly for this current season.”(1)
With that background, here are three key TV sports insights from August that shed some light on the current season:
1. VIEWERS SPENT MORE THAN 1 BILLION HOURS WATCHING CABLE SPORTS NETWORKS IN AUGUST
For Cable sports networks, August finished as the biggest post-pandemic month of 2020, based on Cox Media analysis of Comscore national data. Combined viewing time across 12 prominent national Cable sports networks reached nearly 1.1 billion hours in August, the highest single-month total since January. When normalized for average weekly viewing, August posted the highest per-week totals for national Cable sports networks since February – the last full month of pre-pandemic sports coverage.(2)
2. BASKETBALL BOUNCED TO THE TOP OF AUGUST CABLE RANKINGS
The August sports scene typically is dominated by baseball and the kickoff of a new college football season, but August 2020 was…well, anything but typical. With the conclusion of the NBA regular season giving way to the playoffs, basketball soared to the top of the TV rankings throughout the month, particularly among younger viewers. In the key 18-49 age group, the top five most-watched Cable telecasts in August were NBA games, according to Cox Media analysis of national Nielsen data. Overall for the month, NBA and political convention coverage scored Cable’s top 10 telecasts among viewers 18-49 – and NBA coverage alone accounted for 43 of Cable’s top 100 telecasts in that demographic.(3)
3. SPORTS FANS IN THE COX FOOTPRINT CONTINUED TO SPEND MORE TIME WATCHING TV
In the weeks and months immediately following the shutdown of major sports in mid-March, sports fans in the Cox footprint actually spent more time watching ad-supported Cable networks, based on Cox Media custom analysis of anonymized, aggregated data provided by Cox Communications. That trend peaked in April, when most of the country was under some sort of stay-at-home order and viewers spent more time watching news networks. After a dip in total viewing time in June, Cox sports viewers started to get back in the game in July – and August finished as their biggest viewing month since April’s high. During August, Cox sports viewers spent 15% more time watching Cable TV networks, compared to pre-pandemic benchmarks. The return of live sports is arguably the biggest reason for the August upturn. Cox sports viewers spent more time watching Cable sports networks in August than any point since the sports world was preempted in March.(4)
Part of the attraction of televised sports is the unscripted drama of what will play out on the court, on the ice, or on the field. In this most uncertain of years, the draw of uncertain outcomes is one observation from previous seasons that likely carries over. Even without fans in the stands, sports viewers are likely to keep tuning in as long as the games are played. Perhaps the Columbia Journalism Review said it best a few years back: “There is no single answer to why people watch sports, because the answer doesn’t lie in the game, it lies inside the individual.”(5)
Visit coxmedia.com for helpful advertising tips and additional information on how best to reach those individual viewers, regardless of which team or sport they follow.
- Thorne, Will. “Are NBA TV Ratings Really ‘Big Trouble’ for Basketball?” Variety. Aug. 18, 2020. Accessed from Variety.com.
- Cox Media analysis of Comscore syndicated national viewing estimates via TV Essentials; Total HH Hours Viewed; Live; Jan-Aug 2020 broadcast months; sum of hours for CBSS, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, FS1, GOLF, MLBN, NBAT, NBCS, NFLN, NHLN, TENN (regional sports networks not included).
- Cox Media analysis of Nielsen national people meter data via NPOWER; P18-49; Live+SD; August broadcast month (Mon 7/27-Sun 8/30); ad-supported Cable networks.
- Cox Media custom analysis of anonymized, aggregated linear TV audience data from Cox Communications; control cohort represents “heavy” sports viewers (i.e., households within Cox footprint with the highest proportion of Jan-Feb 2020 TV viewing going to Cable sports network); comparisons are indexed versus pre-pandemic averages for Weeks 1-10 of 2020 broadcast year.
- Simons, Eric. “What science can tell sportswriters about why we love sports.” Columbia Journalism Review. September/October 2014. Accessed via archives.cjr.org.
About the Author
David “The Professor” Gustafson is Cox Media’s director of linear and audience research. He currently serves on Nielsen’s Local Policy Guidelines Committee (PGC) and as Cox Media’s primary liaison to Comscore for local TV measurement. David is an active member of Ampersand’s cross-MVPD research committee and a past chair of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau’s Committee on Local Television Audience Measurement (COLCAM).More Content by David Gustafson