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Only Turn On The Game For The 4th Quarter? You’re Not Alone

One of our working theories here at TV[R}EV is that watching an entire professional sporting event on TV is a huge time commitment of the sort that few people have time for anymore and that the availability of scoring and recaps in something close to real time makes it easy for even devoted fans to skip the first three quarters or seven innings of a game and tune in for that last piece if the score looks close.

So it was edifying and then some to find a story in Variety about research that basically confirms this theory. (HT Peter Naylor).

The piece highlights research from The Maru Group which shows that while the 18-34 cohort is definitely much further ahead in terms of their willingness to rely on highlights, older viewers are not far behind.

A few key takeaways and then our take on what it all means.

The longer the season, the more onerous it seems. This should not be all that surprising, but NFL fans are slightly more tolerant of watching full games than NBA and MLB fans. (For those of you who don’t follow sports, in non-Covid years, the NFL has 16 regular season games, the NBA has 82, and MLB has 162.)

What’s surprising though is the word “slightly.” While 48% of those under 35 prefer watching NFL highlights to real games, that number only jumps to 54% for NBA games and 58% for MLB games.

That gap increases precipitously when you look at older fans: only 20% of 35-49 year old and 11% of 50+ NFL fans prefer watching highlights, while with MLB fans, those numbers jump to 48% and 24% respectively, and with NBA fans the gap between 35-49 and 50+ narrows to 47% and 40%.

Easier access to real time stats means you don’t need to watch the whole game. I will confess to frequently waiting to see what the score is at the end of the third quarter before deciding to watch the fourth quarter of a Brooklyn Nets game, and it seems I am not alone: 50% of NBA fans under 35 agree, as do 38% of those 35-49 and 39% of those 50+. MLB fans were no less fickle: 54% of those 18-34, 33% of those 35-49 and 20% of those 50+ qualify as “final innings watchers.”

It’s only the NFL where fans want to watch the whole game—just 36% of those 18-34, 22% of those 35-49 and 18% of those 50+ think the games aren’t worth watching until the end.

Lengthy playoff seasons diminish the value of the regular season. Leagues have realized they can create more drama and interest (not to mention higher ticket prices) with longer playoff seasons. But the Maru study shows how that impacts the value of the regular season.

For the NBA, with its months-long playoff season that involves half the teams in the league, 43% of 18-34 year olds, 34% of 35-39 year olds and 33% of those over 50 agree that the “regular season is too boring to watch.”

MLB, with its 162 game regular season doesn’t fare much better, with 46% (18-34), 32% (35-49) and 16% (50+) of fans agreeing that the regular season is too boring.

With the NFL, it’s mostly younger fans (32% of 18-34 year olds) who are disenchanted with the regular season. Older fans seem more engaged, with only 13% (35-49) and 11% (50+) claiming they are bored by the regular season.

What It All Means

To reiterate our thesis, the average professional sporting league game is anywhere from two and a half to four hours, depending on overtime. That’s a huge time commitment for most people in a way it was not forty years ago. Factor in 162 MLB games or 82 NBA ones and that time commitment grows exponentially larger.

In addition, fans can simply go to Twitter or the league or team app to find out the current score and to see highlight clips and then decide whether it’s worth tuning in.

Or not–as the survey reveals, many fans don’t find regular season games to be worth the bother.

Long Term Ramifications

Our second big theory about sports comes into play here. And that is that there are, at a macro level, two types of sports fans: fans of the game and fans of a specific team, or ESPN fans and RSN fansl.

To wit, a fan of the game will happily watch any basketball game, NBA or college, so long as it is a good matchup. A fan of a specific team will also watch any game…so long as the Celtics are playing in it.

Now obviously there is wide overlap between these two stereotypes, but the question arises as to where each grouping falls. Of the 54% of NBA fans under 35 who prefer watching highlights to full games, are 90% of them “fans of the game” while 90% of the 46% who still prefer watching full games are “fans of a team.” The answer to that will have a big impact on what the future of sports viewership looks like.

Sports viewership is due for a precipitous drop, but RSNs might still be a good bet. Assuming that the aforementioned split and the behaviors I’ve attributed to each group are true, then RSNs, which are aimed at fans of a team, are in good shape: those Celtics fans want to watch full games and the Celtics RSN will be the only place to see them. 

That same theory being proved valid would be bad news for everyone who has just paid billions for rights to NFL games for the next 11 years, as the 48% of under 35 viewers who’d rather watch NFL highlight clips aren’t going to be tuning in to watch all those football games, at least not the whole game (and all the ads that go with it.) Not to mention the fact that they’ll be “46 and under” when the current deal is up.

The NBA has a particular problem. 40% of viewers over 50 prefer watching NBA clips over NBA games. That’s a huge jump from the 11% and 24% of viewers in that age range who said the same thing about the NFL and MLB respectively.

Similarly, 33% of people in that age cohort agreed that regular season NBA games are “too boring to bother watching,” versus 11% for NFL games and 24% for MLB games.

Part of this may be due to the NBA’s comically long playoff season which extends (in non-Covid years) from April through June.  Or to the small size of NBA teams which means that a robust off-season trading cycle often seems to put what seems like a brand new team on the floor every year in many cities, which makes it harder to form attachments. 

There is a silver lining however. (Commissioner pun intended.) 59% of viewers under 35 and 63% of those 35-49 agreed that “watching the NBA is one of my favorite things to do in life.” Those numbers are higher than the percentages who felt the same way about the NFL (52% and 47%) and MLB (57% for both age cohorts) and may indicate that fans who love the NBA really love the NBA and will continue watching full games regardless of trades and the length of the playoff season.

Buy your ads in the fourth quarter. Given the number of fans who claim they wait to see if the game is close and then tune in for the final quarter (50% of NBA fans under 35 and 54% of MLB fans), it would seem that not only are you going to get more viewers at the end of the game, but viewers you hadn’t hit before either. That’s a double whammy, one that should serve to make those end of game ads the most valuable ones of all.

Reengaging fans

All in all, sports leagues need to rethink how they might better engage time-crunched fans. Whether that is shorter seasons, charging for access to game highlights or something else, it’s an issue when the majority (or near majority) of fans under 35 of all three major U.S. sports leagues report they’d rather watch highlight clips than full games.

While it’s possible younger fans will gain newfound appreciation for full game viewing as they get older and/or that the people responding to the survey were expressing pandemic-tinged opinions, this is definitely something the leagues need to pay attention to in the years ahead.