How March Madness Defied the Pandemic’s Sports TV Ratings Malaise

Sports Bounce Back
Yinchen Niu/VIP

It’s no secret that live sports widely saw accelerated viewer declines amidst the COVID-19 pandemic last year. The NCAA’s March Madness tournament, canceled last year, is bucking the trend, with a majority of comparable games from the first four of this year’s tournament seeing greater viewership than in 2019. As a note, later tournament games are not comparable given they have tended to air on different networks (i.e., on TBS instead of CBS and vice versa), with the day of the week games have taken place also differing significantly (what were latter-stage weekday games in 2019 were weekend games in 2021).

VIP’s “Sports’ New TV Formula” report found that a growing number of fans are finding games with little at stake, such as regular-season games, to be “boring.” March Madness aside, NCAA Basketball correlates with this, as both the regular season and postseason play-in tournaments to qualify for 2021 were down versus 2019.

Other sports taking place in February and March are mainly seeing lower audiences in 2021 versus the last pre-pandemic year in 2019 (click here for the full data set used in our analysis). NASCAR’s premier NASCAR Cup competition on Fox pulled fewer viewers for each race in VIP’s analysis. The Xfinity Series on FS1 has generally been seeing increased viewership but trails the NASCAR Cup in total audience.

The NBA has seen the vast majority of its games in the period come in below 2019 levels, for an average difference of -27.4%. The NHL is continuing its run of below-average audiences, highlighted by the stark decline in the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals, with more games seeing less viewers this year than bigger audiences versus 2019. The NHL’s ratio of games with more/less audience is a lot tighter than the NBA’s, however, which has to be a worry for basketball bigwigs.

Golf’s bigger tournaments in the winter are also seeing a bounceback. VIP employed a slightly different methodology in comparing golf tournaments, given several were a week or two out from their 2019 equivalent. What we found was that the larger tournaments taking place — Pebble Beach, the Arnold Palmer International, PGA Players Championship — have seen audience increases versus 2019 for the final days of the tournaments. More minor competitions — Honda Classic, WGC Mexico, Genesis Open — are down across the board.

The performance of March Madness and bigger golf tournaments suggests fans still value high-stakes events but are increasingly more content to watch highlights of games and events with less on the line.

To combat this, U.S. sports must follow the blueprint laid out by soccer. It is standard all across the globe for national and international single-elimination tournaments to take place during the regular league season. The U.S. is the only country that sees sports hold a regular season to crown the best team in the country and then immediately declare that accomplishment to be worthless in the quest to be the postseason ultimate champion, a point on which U.S. viewers have picked up.

In order to entice fan interest, leagues like the NHL, NBA and MLB need to reduce regular-season games and introduce midseason tournaments to play alongside the season. These tournaments can offer seeded slots in the postseason to give players and fans the impetus to compete and watch, with the added bonus of new rights packages for leagues to sell.

VIP anticipates one league to trial such a format by 2023, as regular-season declines become too great to ignore and media rights partners grow antsy. The issue, as ever with traditional media in the U.S. in the 21st century, will be leaving it too late to act. The NBA is already said to be considering such a change, hopefully it will be bold sooner than later given what fan behavior is pointing to.

Read the full special report