Are Emerging “Sports” Affecting the Present and Future of North American Professional Sports?

Dr Mark S Nagel

Posted: December 12, 2016

During the first half of the 2016 National Football League (NFL) season, television ratings[1] declined by 14% from the first half of the 2015 season (Kaplan, 2016). The ratings decline was particularly steep for Thursday night games. Though some identified oversaturation, bad matchups and poor quality of play as the primary culprits for the Thursday ratings decline, a vast array of other excuses have been proffered for the Sunday and Monday games including growing concern for head injuries, disappointment regarding Colin Kaepernick’s (and other player’s) refusal to stand for the National Anthem, the intently watched United States Presidential election, and overzealous and time consuming officiating (Crupi, 2016). The ratings decline, though nowhere near anything “critical” – NFL games from the first half of the season were still consistently among the highest rated television programming each week – is concerning because as audiences continue to deemphasize live television viewing, sports programming is one of the few content areas that can sustain a significant live audience (and support the traditional commercial break advertising model).

One of the key events pundits have cited when discussing the recent decline in NFL ratings was the Sunday night conflict between the NFL and Major League Baseball’s (MLB) World Series. For many years, the NFL did not schedule a Sunday night game during the week that a World Series game might be played. That changed in 2010 when the NFL scheduled a game between the New Orleans Saints and the Pittsburgh Steelers. In every year since 2010, the NFL has chosen to schedule a regular season game against MLB’s signature event with the ratings for the NFL content usually exceeding the World Series game airing in direct competition (Breech, 2016). However, this year on October 30, 2016 the World Series Game 5 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians garnered a 15.3 rating which equated to 23.6 million viewers on Fox (up from 17.3 million viewers for the 2015 World Series Game 5 between the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets). Conversely, a highly compelling NFL game pitting the popular Dallas Cowboys versus their archrival Philadelphia Eagles in a battle for first place in the NFC East drew a 11.6 rating (18 million viewers, down from 23 million for Packers – Broncos in 2015) (Breech, 2016; Patten, 2016). Despite the head-to-head loss, once the World Series and Presidential election were concluded, NFL ratings inched slightly higher, likely spurred by more compelling matchups as much as the disappearance of significant “non-sports” competition (Brown, 2016).

Though the television ratings for the NFL and MLB games on Sunday, October 30 generated a lot of attention, there were two other interesting “sporting” events that night that might signal a continued morphing of the future of sports media consumption. At 8pm Eastern Standard Time as the World Series Game 5 and the Dallas-Philadelphia game were about to begin, ESPN offered semi-live coverage (the feed was delayed 30-minutes to prevent cheating) of the final table of the World Series of Poker’s Main Event. At the same time, on ESPN 2, the Drone Racing League hosted “L.A.Pocalypse,” a taped event from an abandoned Los Angeles-area mall. The poker coverage attracted 403,000 viewers (153,000 of them aged 18-49) and the Drone Racing League attracted 142,000 (56,000 of them aged 18-49) (Sports TV Ratings, 2016b). Though the ratings results were not anywhere near the top of the charts and were ignored by most observers, considering some sports television pundits evaluated the competing NFL and MLB contests among the best of the year and the rest of the Sunday night programming across all channels is typically among the strongest of the week, it is a bit surprising that over half a million viewers would make these alternative content choices.

For years, there has been mild concern in the Big Four (NFL, MLB, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League) about the future in regards to on-site consumption and media viewership, particularly among those under the age of 18. With ticket prices escalating to a point that many middle and lower-class families cannot afford to attend many or any live events, some have questioned if these non-attendees will become viewers – let alone paid live consumers – of the Big Four content when they reach their peak earning power in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Each young person who is not significantly exposed and enculturated into “traditional” North American consumer sports is less likely to consume those sports in the future, particularly at a highly passionate level. For years, many speculated that the X-Games and other “extreme” sports would rise to compete for a portion of the youth market. But perhaps it is “sports” that require little physical strength that will rise to be significant competitors in the future. In addition to Poker and Drone Racing, there is also a growing demand for electronic sports (eSports) content. On November 11, 2016, Turner Broadcasting’s 10pm Eastern Time broadcast of the ELEAGUE attracted 307,000 total viewers and 163,000 viewers age 18-49 (Sports TV Ratings, 2016a). Certainly, none of these numbers are comparable to the NFL’s, but they compare favorably to some recent Major League Soccer (MLS) broadcasts (Stephenson, 2016). Though not anywhere near the most popular American professional sport, the MLS has been noted by many as an established and financially viable league with a bright future.

As the Big Four leagues examine the present and look to the future, perhaps the most important component of the recent television ratings is the median age of the World Series Game 5 was 53.8 and the median age of the Cowboys-Eagles game was 47.6 (Sports TV Ratings, 2016c). Conversely, in 2015, 69% of US eSports viewers were 8-34 years old (Statista, 2015). If younger viewers are not watching NFL games and the World Series at the same rate as they used to 20 years ago, are these younger consumers as likely to watch World Series and NFL games when they are 50 years old? It is an interesting and potentially costly question established North American professional sports leagues should be addressing.

[1] In the United States, ratings are typically reported in two ways. A rating point equals the percentage of all televisions in the marketplace that are watching that program. A share is the percentage of all televisions tuned into that program compared to all the other televisions that are turned on to any programming during that time period.

IBreech, J. (2016, October 31). World Series Game 5 crushes Eagles-Cowboys in Sunday night TV ratings. Retrieved from [Link]

IIBrown, M. (2016, November 15). Here's the real reasons NFL TV ratings will continue downward. Forbes. Retrieved from [Link]

IIICrupi, A. (2016, October 31). The truth about the NFL ratings slump: It's not the anthem protests. Advertising Age. Retrieved from [Link]

IVKaplan, E. (2016, November 16). Why haven’t college football ratings fallen like the NFL’s? Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from [Link]

VPatten, D. (2016, October 31). Cubs Game 5 Win in World Series gets best viewership since 1997; Tops ‘SNF.’ Retrieved from [Link]

VISports TV Ratings. (2016a, November 1). Indiana-Kansas hoops, USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier top cable sports TV ratings for Friday November 11, 2016. Retrieved from [Link]

VIISports TV Ratings. (2016b, November 1). NASCAR Sprint Cup Martinsville, SportsCenter, NFL Countdown top cable sports TV ratings for Sunday October 30, 2016. Retrieved from [Link]

VIIISports TV Ratings. (2016c). World Series median age. Retrieved from [Link]

IXStatista. (2015). Distribution of eSports viewers in the United States in 2015, by age group. Retrieved from [Link]

XStephenson, C. (2016, July 27). TV ratings for MLS are up from last year on all ESPN platforms. Retrieved from [Link] />

About Dr Mark S Nagel

A native of California, Dr. Nagel became a faculty member in the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina in 2006. Prior to joining the department, he was the director of the graduate sport management program at Georgia State University. At Georgia State he was responsible for all aspects of the sport management program including recruiting and advising students, developing and scheduling courses, identifying and supervising adjunct faculty, and maintaining alumni and sport business relationships. Dr. Nagel has also previously worked as a sport management professor at the University of West Georgia and San Jose State University. Dr. Nagel currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at the IE Business School in Madrid, the University of San Francisco and St. Mary’s College of California. Before pursuing a career in academe, Dr. Nagel worked in different areas of sport management—primarily in athletic coaching and administration as well as campus recreation. During his years as an assistant coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of San Francisco, he helped lead the team to three NCAA Tournament appearances and a spot in the 1996 Sweet 16.

Dr. Nagel has co-authored three textbooks: Introduction to Sport Management: Theory and Practice; Financial Management in the Sport Industry; and Sport Facility Management: Organizing Events and Mitigating Risks. Dr. Nagel has authored or co-authored numerous articles in refereed journals such as the Journal of Sport Management, Sport Marketing Quarterly, Entertainment and Sport Law Journal, International Journal of Sport Finance, and Sport Management Review. He has also published extensively in professional journals as well as written numerous academic book chapters and given dozens of research presentations. He has also served as treasurer for the North American Society for Sport Management and the Sport and Recreation Law Association.