The Return of Live Sports Brings in Viewers, and Brings Hope for Linear TV


Jeffrey Silverman, PhD
Director, Data Science & Analytics
Aug 27, 2020

Live sports broadcasts have long been one of linear TV’s biggest draws, one of the few remaining pieces of programming that have kept viewers from cutting the cord and maintaining cable subscriptions. But as the pandemic set in earlier this year, live sports ground to a halt in the U.S., forcing many networks to fill major holes in their broadcast schedules. These networks creatively filled the airtime, but it was still no substitute for live competition.

Thankfully, after a long drought, American professional sports returned in earnest in late July, to the delight of viewers, networks, and advertisers. Early analysis shows lift for most sports networks, while also showing increased household reach for MLB, the NBA and the NHL.

In an interesting trend, with all three of these leagues returning in a relatively close timeframe, and some playing at unconventional times of the year, the audience overlap has actually increased. Our analysis found that the percentage of viewers who watch either two of the three leagues, or all three leagues, has gone up. For example, before the COVID pauses, about 12% of baseball or basketball watchers watched at least one game of each sport. Since these leagues returned, more than 25% have watched at least one game of each sport, showing that sports fans have been eager for any kind of live game action.

Here are some further highlights from Samba TV’s look at the return of the major professional sports leagues.

Sports broadcasts enjoy big gains in reach. Upon their initial returns in late July and early August, basketball, baseball, and hockey all saw increases in overall household reach, compared to some of the final games before the shutdowns. Baseball, which began its season late, saw the average household (HH) reach per game increase 78% compared to games in a similar time frame in 2019. Meanwhile, NBA broadcasts were seen by an average of 16% more households, compared to games in March immediately before the league shut down, while NHL games were watched by 17% more HHs compared to March.

With the NBA briefly back in action at the end of July, TNT was one of just a few cable networks that saw an increase in reach both compared against June (+11%) and year-over-year (+17%). Other networks that aired sports in July, like FS1 and ESPN, increased reach month-over-month from June by 13% and 30% respectively.

Time spent remains relatively flat. Even as reach grew, viewers were not investing more time into individual games, as average time spent watching broadcasts was similar to what it was pre-pandemic. The average time spent watching a basketball game was up by 4 minutes compared to March, while hockey saw a 5 minute increase. Average time spent watching a baseball game was down 3 minutes compared to 2019.

Viewer excitement was evident from day one. The NBA’s opening night saw immediate growth in tune-in, as the Los Angeles Clippers versus Los Angeles Lakers game attracted 15% more households than the two teams’ previous matchup on March 8. This was especially impressive as the March game was a Sunday afternoon tilt on ABC, while the first night of the restarted NBA season fell on a Thursday, and the battle between the two LA teams started late on the east coast and on TNT, rather than a national broadcast network. Interestingly, more HHs in the New Orleans DMA watched the LA game than watched their home team in a game against Utah earlier that night.

The PGA viewership grows compared to 2019. The major team sports aren’t the only sports seeing increased viewership. Each round of the PGA Championship, from August 6 through 9, saw greater viewership compared to 2019 (with the exception of the early cable coverage of the third and fourth rounds). The final round, which aired on CBS on August 9, saw more than 6 million HHs tune in, with each HH watching 143 minutes of coverage, on average. That’s a big increase from 2019, where each HH watched an average of 93 minutes of the final Sunday round.

Looking at UEFA Champions League Final Across the Pond

The UEFA Champions League Final aired on Sunday, August 23 to the delight of global fans. Scotland demonstrated the highest UK tune-in rate of 8.7% across 207k HHs and Northern Ireland repped the second highest tune-in rate with 56k households and a 7.8% tune-in rate. Even with the glut of sports content now stateside, we saw HHs in the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale area had a tune-in rate of 5.4%, across 88k HHs during the final face off.

This fall brings a plenty of live sports broadcasts, and networks and advertisers are eagerly watching to see if fans continue to tune in. With the NBA considering postponing playoff games and NHL entering its playoff periods, the higher stakes could very well impact reach and viewership. Samba TV will continue to monitor these trends so that our partners have a clear understanding of the sports broadcasting landscape.

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