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How Pro Leagues, Networks, and Advertisers Have Responded to a Very Different Year in Sports

One major question mark as an unusual fall television season has unfolded, is what role live sports would play. No matter what kind of programming networks and cable can produce, live sports typically carry the day and can anchor entire networks with massive, predictable ratings (hence their enormous network deals). So as various professional leagues attempted to launch either the returns or the beginnings of their seasons, it was unclear whether we’d have live sports at all (and how leagues would variously manage such large-scale productions), what fan and consumer experiences would be like (and how this would affect advertising), and how successful the ratings would be for these truncated and abbreviated seasons.

In mid-March, the National Basketball Association unexpectedly announced the suspension of its season, weeks before the playoffs, as the result of several players testing positive for Covid-19. Preceding most government action, the shutdown was a shock for most fans, and as the summer wore on, provided much speculation for fans and broadcasters. How would Basketball return? What would sports look like in 2020? The NBA soon settled on a “bubble” in Walt Disney World, with the entire infrastructure of the league sequestered in a few hotels and arenas similar to some unscripted TV productions. The games were played to a stadium empty of attendees, save for ”virtual fans” projected on the walls. The National Hockey League implemented a “bubble” as well, while Major League Baseball and the National Football League opted for looser protocol, both of which have fared reasonably well so far (though the NFL has had to move games because of Covid clusters on some teams).

The return of the NBA lifted TNT’s ratings substantially. Eighty-three of the top 100 US advertisers purchased ads during the sport’s return, which brought a rise in ad revenues. Over half of the television viewing in some key demographics was focused on NBA games. Odd times and an excess of games eventually hurt some playoff ratings, but the return was an unmitigated success. Additionally, the league reported no cases of Covid. Baseball posted big numbers upon its return, which dropped off shortly after. Still, the success of widespread testing means that when a league enters a bubble for its playoffs, it likely brings fans along. Additionally, the leagues are using novel and unlikely formats to bring new digital advertising experiences to fans by getting creative with brands. Even a political strike by the NBA players gave the league and some teams the ability to reach fans. And without live audiences, new advertising opportunities abound.

Because of the political stance of many athletes, and increased politicization of the pandemic itself, some have tried to use the leagues themselves, and lower ratings than previous years, as a wedge and cultural issue. The reality is that while linear TV ratings and ad spending are down this year, they’re down for almost all programming across the board. (In addition, some fans are not watching sports on linear TV, because of the way their schedules have changed during the pandemic as well as a longer-term trend toward streaming.) The NBA’s return is not just a ratings success, the defense of those ratings has become a point of pride even for some NBA owners. And as the NBA playoffs have continued into October, ratings suffered, but many pointed to the oddness of an October NBA Finals (the league usually wraps play in late May and June), plus fans unable to watch in sports bars and an overall drop-off in linear TV. Meanwhile, the NFL has returned as was originally scheduled, and promises to be a ratings juggernaut, with ad spend on pace with 2019. In July, Axios was warning about the effects of a missed NFL season on fall TV, but now the league is poised to provide a “safe haven” for advertisers trying to recover from a difficult summer.

As the NFL has come back, the first returns are promising. Sports represent a massive part of popular culture, an escape from the mundane of the everyday, and one of the most popular remaining live broadcast events on linear TV. Despite turmoil and uncertainty across almost every facet of life, their return to television has been a boon for Americans, brands, and advertisers. Disappointing ratings have been an exaggeration, as most close observers consider the production and presentation of the leagues nothing short of “a miracle.” With the postponed Olympics and another year of pandemic experience for American sports, 2021 promises to continue the success and help advertisers recover from a complicated year.