There was a thought, back in those awful times of March, April and May, that when sports came back, they’d do so to the largest TV audience known to man. We were all stuck indoors with nothing new to watch — we’d be dying to watch anything!
Reality, as it often does, has proven more complicated.
College football ratings are down 30 percent year over year. Furthermore, by this point in the 2019 campaign, 22 games had drawn at least 4 million viewers. This year? Nine.
Below is a look at the 10 most-watched games so far in 2020, compared with a similar point in 2019.
1. Georgia-Alabama (Oct. 17) — 9.61 million viewers
2. Tennessee-Georgia (Oct. 10) — 5.77 million
3. Alabama-Ole Miss (Oct. 10) — 4.89 million
4. Texas-Oklahoma (Oct. 10) — 4.81 million
5. Texas A&M-Alabama (Oct. 3) — 4.76 million
6. Miami-Clemson (Oct. 10) — 4.61 million
7. Mississippi State-LSU (Sept. 26) — 4.44 million
8. Duke-Notre Dame (Sept. 12) — 4.32 million
9. Auburn-Georgia (Oct. 3) — 4.22 million
10. Miami-Louisville (Sept. 19) — 3.8 million
1. Notre Dame-Georgia (Sept. 21) — 9.29 million
2. LSU-Texas (Sept. 7) — 8.63 million
3. Oklahoma-Texas (Oct. 12) — 7.25 million
4. Oregon-Auburn (Aug. 31) — 6.86 million
5. Michigan State-Ohio State (Oct. 5) — 6.68 million
6. Michigan-Penn State (Oct. 19) — 6.66 million
7. Texas A&M-Clemson (Sept. 7) — 6.46 million
8. Florida-LSU (Oct. 12) — 6.45 million
9. Auburn-Florida (Oct. 5) — 6.43 million
10. Ohio State-Nebraska (Sept. 28) — 6.14 million
If that seems like cause for panic, it’s not. At least not necessarily.
Sports TV viewership is down across the board.
There are a number of reasons for this, of course.
College football was hit particularly hard, given that the SEC didn’t start until Sept. 26, the Big Ten won’t begin until this coming weekend, and the Pac-12 won’t join the fray until Nov. 6. Because of that, the non-conference schedule was almost entirely wiped out, turning September into a wash.
There are also external reasons college football is down, in the form of increased competition from the NBA and NHL playoffs in addition to the usual competition from Major League Baseball. We’re also in an election season and, in case anyone forgot, the normal rhythm of American life is just off right now.
“We just believe so strongly that the whole business of sports fuels social connection and is fueled by social connection,” said Mike Mulvihill, head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports, told the Washington Post. “For obvious reasons, our whole environment of social connection is completely inside out. So sports and the ability of sports to act as a unifying force is really undermined.”
ESPN data, according to the Post, showed that the vast majority of hardcore sports fans are still tuning in, but casual fans — the type that can push college football viewership from seven to eight figures — are just tuning out of sports right now, in the same way a Grey’s Anatomy casual viewer might check out if the show’s setting was moved from a hospital to the moon for one season.
In college football’s corner of the world, there are real reasons for optimism. Saturday’s Georgia-Alabama game was the highest-rated of the season, and the weekend prior to that saw four games top the 4 million mark — which actually represents an increase from the same weekend in 2019. The Big Ten is coming back — they’ll be on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff and ABC’s Saturday Night Football this Saturday — and the election will soon be over.
And if that’s not enough, consider this. However hard Sports TV might be struggling in this moment, Regular TV is doing worse. Among the primetime 40 shows on last week’s television schedule, how many were traditional TV entertainment — scripted shows, reality shows, game shows and the like? Zero.