Declining Viewership is a Product of Pandemic More Than of Athlete’s Social Activism

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

After abnormally-long hiatuses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sports leagues across the United States resumed to much lower ratings than usual. As they’ve done so, political pundits and fans alike have questioned whether such drops are a result of athletes and their organizations dipping their toes into political matters such as police brutality and the presidential election.

Most notably, the National Basketball Association (NBA), which featured the majority of its athletes kneeling prior to every game and even a player-led boycott following the police killing of Jacob Blake, suffered a historically low average of 5.6 million viewers across its six-game championship series. Viewership numbers for the preceding seeding and playoff games also declined from previous years. Although not to the same extent, the National Football League (NFL) has also experienced lower ratings compared to past seasons. For example, viewership for NBC and CBS’s NFL programming is down 14% since the season began on Sept. 8. Though not as progressive as the NBA, the NFL allowed players to kneel in protest during the national anthem and display social justice messages on the back of their helmets this season.

In reaction, high-profile conservative politicians, such as the president, have pointed to players’ involvement in political matters as the main reason for the decline. “People are tired of watching the highly political NBA. Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back,” President Donald Trump said in a tweet on Sept. 1.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) issued a similar sentiment in an Oct. 7 appearance on the Sean Hannity show, where he remarked that it was painful watching the NBA because the league had decided “that half their fans are idiots and racists” and that “the announcers are engaging in political tirades the whole time.”

A Harris poll conducted in late October seemed to back up Trump and Cruz’s claims, as it revealed that 38% of Americans had chosen to stop watching basketball because it became too political. However, while the political involvement of sports leagues may have contributed to declining sports ratings, it’s unlikely that it’s the main reason why high-profile sports leagues such as the NBA and NFL have observed drops in ratings since resuming amidst the pandemic. Rather, declining viewership is most likely a product of a couple of other overlooked factors.

First, due to irregular season schedules caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, sports leagues found themselves having to compete harder for attention than ever before. For example, Sept. 10 marked the first time in history that the NBA, NFL, National Hockey League, Women National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer all held games on the same day. Given the sheer volume of sports for fans to choose from, it’s only natural that leagues would have lower ratings than when they were a more prominent option. This is most likely why events such as the golf U.S. Open, Kentucky Derby, and Stanley Cup finals observed declining ratings despite their organizations or athletes making minimal efforts to impact social justice. Along with other sports, leagues have also had to battle with political events for viewers’ attention amidst one of the most-charged election cycles in American history. While sports ratings declined, viewership for cable news networks exploded in October as they set record numbers for the month.

The still-ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has also likely contributed to declining sports ratings. In July, Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle remarked that “sports are the reward of a functioning society.” Doolittle made the statement while discussing Major League Baseball’s attempts to restart the baseball season amidst the pandemic, but his words hold true regarding fans’ abilities to watch sports.

Sports leagues may have gotten off the ground, but for many watchers, their current conditions don’t represent those of a functioning society. As a result, they are likely unable to enjoy sporting events to the same degree as they would normally be able to. In a country where 12.6 million are still unemployed (as of September), nearly 100,000 people are testing positive for the coronavirus each day, and 30-40 million face eviction, it is not hard to see why sports would be a much lower priority for Americans than it typically is.

Through Teen Lenses : Why do you think sports ratings have been down for the last few months? Do you think it could have anything to do with athletes’ actions on social justice?

“Well, there certainly has been a lot of backlash against sports taking stances on social justice/politics, but I’m not sure if falling sports ratings can be attributed to that because the elephant in the room is the coronavirus pandemic. Major sports leagues around the world have had to adjust to different playing styles, new restrictions, and most important to me, a lack of fans. I think a combination of those reasons are behind a declining trend in sports ratings.” Elliott Lee, 16, Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Mclean, Virginia
“As someone that tries to stay up to date with news, I’ve heard a lot of things about certain sports doing things to honor the BLM movement, and then how certain political figures are negatively responding to those actions. However, I think there’s definitely more aspects to the issue than just political reasons – for example, people might just be tired of watching sports for so long given the length of the pandemic. There’s also the element of missing the crowd that kind of takes away from the thrill of watching a game.” Nathan Mo, 16, Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Herndon, Virginia
“I think that social justice movements in sports could be part of the reason behind the rating drop. There’s some populations in America who love sports, but are fine with our currently flawed systems because the flaws don’t affect them. Their changes in ratings could contribute to this decline. Another big thing is the quality of the gameplay after such a long break during covid. Personally, as a football watcher, I saw that a lot of teams weren’t performing as well as they used to in terms of scoring and general play quality. I think that this plays a big role too and once teams get back into their rhythm, their ratings should trend more upward.” Aafreen Ali, 16, Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Falls Church, Virginia