As Sports Broadcasters See Some Viewers Return, Experts Predict Another Year Of Streaming Transition

While pundits have been sounding the 2-minute warning on big-time televised sports for a few years, the companies that feed our athletic addictions managed to keep the game going a bit longer this past year. 

And as we head into a new year, there’s some optimism in the industry that it will at least force overtime, even if long-term victory remains up in the air.


Last year’s NFL season brought speculation about whether Americans were losing interest in football, a sport beset by controversy over issues such as the dangers of brain damage and players kneeling during the national anthem. And viewership in 2017-2018 was indeed down.

Yet viewers have returned this season. 

NBC Sports said this week that its “Sunday Night Football” viewership jumped this season by 7 percent, capturing an average of 19.3 million live or same-day watchers. SNF is set to finish the season as the top primetime show this year, according to Nielsen. NBC, a unit of Comcast Corporation CMCSA-owned NBC Universal, said “Football Night in America" posted a 4-percent viewership increase.

While it does indicate some NFL viewers are returning, the enthusiasm remains tempered by the fact that audience numbers still aren’t where they were two years ago. Viewership remained 5 percent lower than in 2016, and according to Sports Media Watch, the number of people watching the league rose this season for just the second time since 2010.

The second most-watched primetime show this fall was “Thursday Night Football,” airing on Fox in the first season of a five-year, $3-billion-plus deal.

Fox was buoyed by “Thursday Night Football,” which gave the network what Variety Magazine called “renewed signs of life." The network also did better on Sundays with “NFL on Fox,” averaging 18 million viewers, up 2 percent from last year.

Sports Media Watch offered some perspective.

“Even with the increase, it would be premature to declare the numbers 'back to normal,'" Sports Media Watch’s founder Paulsen said in a post. “Any increase in the current television environment is a sign of strength, but this season was still the second-lowest rated on FOX since 2005 ... and the second-least watched since 2008.The other networks had similar results.”


Baseball was also good for Fox last year. Regular season MLB viewership was up 9 percent over the previous season on Fox, according to Sports Business Daily, and 11 percent higher than in 2016. The baseball audience was down on the FS1 network.

ESPN saw a 2-percent baseball viewership decline.

Some of that is fragmentation: MLB Network saw its viewership average go up 4 percent.

New Ways Of Watching 

The big story in televised sports continues to be the way in which Americans watch TV — and they're increasingly getting streamed content delivered to a number of devices rather than via cable or satellite.

Cable and satellite companies continued to lose subscribers in 2018. S&P Global Market Intelligence reported in November the industry lost 1.2 million video subscribers in the third quarter.


ESPN, owned by Walt Disney Company DIS, acknowledged this past year that viewers leaving cable might not be coming back and made a move to go where the younger audience is.  

In April, the network launched a streaming service, ESPN+, in the hopes of retaining viewers who are dropping traditional cable but still enjoy watching sports.

It reached 1 million subscribers in six months, allowing users to stream about 10,000 live games or events a year, including Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. ESPN+ also carries several European soccer leagues, and, like Netflix and Amazon, also leans into on-demand original programming created for the streaming service. 

Some analysts say the move may be the most crucial in decades at ESPN, which has hemorrhaged viewers, with one projection saying the network may have lost 14 million subscribers since 2010.

The competition, perhaps more so than networks like CBS and Fox, is big new media companies like, Inc. AMZNAlphabet Inc. GOOG GOOGL's YouTube; and, Inc. FB, all of which are exploring streaming deals.

Amazon made news in 2018 when it won the streaming rights for Thursday Night Football — further fragmenting that audience and costing Fox viewers in the process. 

Betting On Gambling

Sports programmers are wagering there’s a bright spot coming.

They’re laying odds that now that betting on sports is legal in a few states, and soon likely to be legal in more, TV sports viewership will increase.

At the National Association of Broadcasters convention in October, during the panel discussion “Can Sports Betting Save Television,” media consultant Larry Samuels of Strategic Acceleration Ventures said more gambling will attract eyeballs. 

“You’re creating an incentive and a reason for people to watch, for people to engage, and to stick with a broadcast much longer than they would have otherwise,” Samuels said during the discussion, according to Forbes. “Because they’re invested in what’s going on." 

Related Links: 

It's Early, But Here's How NFL Games Are Doing On Amazon Prime Vs. Twitter

NFL Demand Still Up Despite Disastrous Start To The Season

BMO Remains Cautious On ESPN, But More Positive On Disney Stock

Posted In: nielsenSports Business DailySports Media WatchSportsGeneral

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