Our ongoing pulsing of sports fan sentiment throughout the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unpack attitudinal shifts. Recall that early on, when sports were shut down, data revealed significant pent-up fan demand that manifested itself in higher engagement levels across a variety of digital content.
It was possible to foreshadow the initial spikes in interest and viewership for most sports upon resumption of modified schedules. But perhaps not as obvious was that higher demand levels would be short-lived, at least according to traditional audience measures.
There have been a number of plausible theories surrounding the drop in televised sports ratings over the most recent couple of months, from traditional election cycle viewership fragmentation to pushback among certain fan segments toward social justice messaging integrated into games, to perceived dilution and disruption of league schedules.
Each of these factors likely played a role in what we are seeing. But what seemed most significant, when analyzing the most recent data, was the concept of overall saturation, coupled with the expected seasonality of various sports.
In the most recent study, conducted in late October, we saw a two-month high of 56% of sports fans agreeing that “There’s so much sports in season now, that I’m having trouble keeping up with everything.” Just four weeks prior, that factor was at 45%.
Further, the data showed precipitous drops in fan engagement — especially among of fans of basketball, hockey and to a lesser extent baseball — as those disrupted and reconfigured seasons drew to their conclusion.
The number of fans who strongly agreed with the statement “Since the return of this sport, I have followed it more closely,” all dipped well below their barometer highs as seasons lingered on — in the case of basketball and hockey, well beyond their traditional calendars.
In contrast, we’ve seen the opposite phenomenon for football and golf, each of which have maintained a greater normalcy to their schedules and have seen relatively less television viewership erosion.
Prior research that we have conducted across each of these sports suggests that we may not only be discounting the impact of saturation, but the role of tradition and seasonality in creating compelling motivations for engagement.
This suggests the further challenges that hockey and basketball face in the short term as they seek to transition from their recently completed altered seasons to a 2020-21 campaign that is already off-schedule.
We can certainly build an argument that a return to action in 2020 was important and welcomed by fans. But there is also strong evidence that the awkwardness of it all diluted the impact on fan engagement, once we got past the honeymoon period of each sport’s return.
The sooner we see things get back to both traditional season start and end dates, the more likely we can ascertain any potential long-term impacts, and the sooner we’ll see stabilization in fan connection.