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Jane McManus: A Rocky Road For Sports

Sports have returned.

But fans haven’t, at least not in the same numbers and with the same enthusiasm.

Ratings for live sports are down across the board, and not by a little. The Stanley Cup Finals were down 61%. The NBA finals were down by about half. Even the NFL – a ratings juggernaut, which annually accounts for the highest rated programs every year -- isn’t immune although the dip is more like 10-20 percent depending on the window.

With hockey, the NBA and baseball, you could argue that the buffet of sports was making fans choose, but with the NFL no other sport is seriously challenging that Sunday broadcast window.

A new Marist Poll gives some clues as to the reasons why. Full disclosure, I’m the Director of Marist College Center for Sports Communication and the poll was a collaboration between my team and the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

In the Poll, 46% of sports fans report watching less live sports now that sports are back. And they are saying it’s for all kinds of reasons.

So let’s back up.

If you are listening to the FOX News echo chamber or President Donald Trump, they will tell you the reason fans aren’t watching is because athletes have found their voices in the wake of the George Floyd killing this summer. Many leagues returned with displays commemorating the Black citizens killed by police in this country, NASCAR banned the confederate flag from the track, and individual athletes have made strong statements advocating for racial justice.

The sports fans put off by this may be quite vocal, but they do not actually account for a large percentage of the drop in interest.

70% of Republicans say they are watching less because of athletes speaking out about social issues, but that group is offset by the number of Democrats and Independents who say they are watching the same or more for the very same reason. Notably, 27% of Black fans and 26% of NBA fans say they are watching more live sports for the protests.

What’s clear is that the political divisions that have ravaged our nation in this election season are affecting sports fans, but not simply in a negative direction.

So what accounts for the greater disinterest?

It turns out it is complicated. The biggest reason cited by sports fans, at 35%, was the coronavirus, and being unable to gather in groups. This topped the antipathy to protests (32%) and increased interest in the election (20%), as well as competing entertainment options (21%).

Some demographics pointed to a specific issue, for example 40% of women who are sports fans are watching less because of reasons around the coronavirus.

But whatever the reason given, interest is down in individual leagues across the board. Compared to a Marist Poll in 2017, the percentage of fans who follow the NFL, has gone from 67% to 52%. Baseball from 51% to 37%, and the NBA from 44% to 37%. Even NASCAR has gone from 22% to 16%.

It’s a drop off that Republicans who want to avoid kneeling athletes and Black Lives Matter signage can’t account for.

Turns out, sports leagues and Trump may have needed the games to come back more than fans were clamoring to get them back.

Life isn’t normal at the moment. Parents may be supervising kids as they zoom into class. Watch party weekends have been disbanded. Jobs have been lost, and looking out for our parents and grandparents is more complicated. Even the social currency sports hold at the water cooler is less useful in a digital workplace.

When the pandemic started, I made the point that we only have sports because we have a functioning society, one where trucks can get food to stadiums on gameday, where planes and hotels and restaurants are all open and operational.

You also need to have a workforce that is insulated enough from the virus to keep outbreaks from knocking games off the schedule. The NWSL, NBA and WNBA have done that well, and baseball had a rocky start but was able to smooth things out. As for the NFL, the jury is out.

But that’s just in the delivery mechanism, we might need fans who are in the place to be able to consume sports as well.

The coronavirus is surging again, infecting roughly 60,000 Americans a day and more than 220,000 people have died from the virus.

What if sports just aren’t a priority for people in the same way? What if we just don’t have the bandwidth for all of this? It might be a time where people have less room for a celebratory distraction in their lives. You can’t even go to many of the games if you wanted, and you have to question the risks of gathering for any event, even one outdoors.

What’s happening with the way Americans consume sports, and a lot of other things, isn’t just a dip. It’s evidence of a profound disruption in our national routine.

Professional leagues bet big that Americans would return in droves. They invested in testing and bubbles and revamped the way they play and practice. But despite having fewer things to do socially, it turns out that about half of sports fans aren’t devoting as much time to watching the games.

Sports are a luxury people don’t have time for in the same way right now. Even now that they are back.

This column commentary was adapted from a column I wrote for Deadspin.

Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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