This spring, when the NBA shut down after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, other sports followed suit. It was an odd pause in what is essentially our modern calendar. The rhythm of the sports calendar functions like the movement of the stars once did for ancient mariners.
And the night sky came to an abrupt stop.
There was an assumption that when sports returned, fans would be relieved and eager. No less a figurehead than President Donald Trump has pushed for professional leagues to get back up and running, starting with a conference call with sports commissioners in early April.
Leagues scrambled, and sports came back.
As for the fans, not so much.
Ratings for live sports are down across the board, and not by a little. The Stanley Cup Finals were down 62%, and even the NFL isn’t immune despite the fact that no other sport is challenging the Sunday broadcast window, a drop that can’t just be attributed to disaffected Jets fans.
A new Marist Poll gives some clues as to the reasons why. (Full disclosure, the poll was my idea, and my day job is Director of Marist College Center for Sports Communication.)
According to the poll, 46 percent of sports fans report watching less live sports now that sports are back. And they are saying it’s for all kinds of reasons. For example, 70 percent of Republicans say they are watching less because of athletes speaking out about social issues, as 27 percent of Black fans say they are watching more live sports for that very same reason.
The political divisions that have ravaged our nation in this election season are affecting sports fans, even if the athlete stands themselves are drawing fans even as others are repelled.
Other demographics point to other issues. For example, 40 percent of women who are sports fans are watching less for reasons related to the coronavirus.
But whatever the reason given, interest is down in individual sports across the board. Compared to a Marist Poll in 2017, the percentage of fans following America’s most popular sport, the NFL, has gone from 67 to 52 percent. MLB and NBA have both fallen from 44 to 37 percent.
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 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 over 50,000 Americans a day, and more than 215,000 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 just 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.
Other polls are finding similar drops in interest, like the Aspen Institute’s finding that 29 percent of parents in September reported their child is not interested in sports.
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 if they are back.