Viewers Returning to Live Sports, but Not Necessarily on Linear TV

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Media programmers have long predicted that months of pent-up demand for live sports programming would lead to record viewership (and robust ad sales) upon professional sports’ return to the airwaves—and as leagues like the MLB, NBA and NHL have resumed play, broadcasters saw some initial ratings spikes around early match-ups.

But the story around sports viewership’s return may shape up to be more complicated for traditional broadcasters. That’s because some former sports viewers may not be returning to see their favorite teams on linear TV, and instead opting to watch games using other methods.

Data from Roku’s smart TV connected households collected this month showed that the majority of Roku homes that had previously watched at least 30 minutes of professional baseball, basketball or hockey on traditional cable TV in 2019 did not tune in to watch the opening weekends of the MLB, NBA or NHL this year.

The stats, based on automated content recognition data from Roku’s smart television sets and streaming devices, showed that 2 out of 3 NBA-viewing households did not tune in to opening weekend games on traditional pay TV during the beginning of this year’s truncated season, and 7 out of 10 NHL-viewing households and MLB-viewing households didn’t watch opening games for those leagues, either.

The discrepancy could be accounted for by the fact that watching 30 minutes of a sport in a prior season does not necessarily mean one is an opening weekend-tier fan, but the same drop-off held true for “superfans,” defined as viewers who were among the top 10% of viewers of the leagues’ programming on traditional pay TV in 2019. One third of baseball superfans who watched more than 34 hours of MLB programming on traditional TV last year sat out this year’s opening weekend on linear, while 2 in 5 basketball superfans (who watched more than 29 hours of NBA programming a year ago) didn’t tune in for the first weekend of this year’s NBA matches on linear TV.

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More than half of hockey superfans who watched more than 17 hours of the NHL on linear a year ago didn’t tune in for 2020’s opening weekend on traditional pay TV, Roku reported.

But those same households aren’t sitting out sports entirely; they’re just opting to watch differently. Households who watched NBA, NHL or MLB content on linear TV a year ago spent more than 100% more time on a virtual MVPD channel during opening weekend, and households that watched NBA, NHL or MLB programming a year ago on traditional pay TV streamed much more sports content during opening weekend than they did a year prior.

Sports streaming, in general, was up 49% year-over-year, according to Roku.

It’s the second such batch of data Roku has released to show the changing habits of sports viewers, and highlights the accelerating migration away from traditional pay TV to other methods of viewership. A month ago, the streaming platform and device-maker released a report that found that fewer than 1 in 5 users who recently cut the cord would return to traditional pay TV when live sports resumed.

The continued momentum away from traditional television shows the pressure that traditional media giants face to get streaming right as new channel distributors vie for their own portion of advertising revenue, and as skinny bundles and virtual MVPD services offer consumers the chance to cord-shave or cord-cut entirely. It’s only one of the reasons why broadcast and cable giants like Comcast-owned NBCUniversal and AT&T-owned WarnerMedia are pouring resources into streaming, and even reorganizing company structures to prioritize it.

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