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March 18, 2010

Squawking Baseball

Sports TV's Golden Age

by Shawn Hoffman

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 Many of you have probably seen this chart in the past week or so:

That's the water usage in Edmonton during the USA vs. Canada gold medal hockey game, which had approximately 80 percent of Canada watching it on TV. No surprise there; hockey equals life in Canada.

But how many of you saw this chart:

That's the number of status updates on Facebook— not just in Canada or the US, but among all of Facebook's 400 million or so users around the world during the game. In other words, it wasn't just Canadians watching; it was being watched by millions and millions of people worldwide.

This is actually part of a larger trend: all of a sudden, ratings for major sports events have skyrocketed in the past year or so.

Mark Cuban pointed this out in October: "Just this week: The NBA on TNT had its highest ratings in TWENTY-SIX YEARS. Versus had its highest rated regular-season NHL game EVER. The first game of the World Series was the highest rated in five years. The NFL was setting records on cable and achieving viewing levels not seen in TWENTY YEARS! College Football ratings are killing it as well."

That has continued­—and even strengthened—since then. The Super Bowl was the most-watched show in US history, and had its highest rating in 14 years. The NFC Championship game had more viewers than any non-Super Bowl American television program since the Seinfeld finale. And of course, the gold-medal hockey game was the most-watched hockey game since the Miracle On Ice game 30 years ago.

Needless to say, this is great news for MLB and its 30 teams. Although the league's national rights contracts don't expire until 2013, individual teams have local rights contracts coming up all the time. Plus, for the growing list of teams that own their own regional sports networks, it should mean more advertising dollars right away. It's almost impossible to get local ratings numbers for all of the RSNs, so it's hard to say how much an increase there will actually be. But it's extremely likely, given the trends we've seen nationally, that far more people are watching games on the local level as well.

There are plenty of theories as to why this is happening. The most obvious is the economy­—people have less money, so they're not going out as much, and instead spend more time watching TV. There's also the thought that these games have simply been extraordinarily compelling, but that doesn't come close to explaining why ratings are up across the board, reversing a trend that has been going on since cable originally started fragmenting the audience 30 years ago. (We certainly haven't become less fragmented in the last year.)

So what's going on here? I think there are two major forces at play: one is social media, and the other is what I would call the natural selection of television programming.

I'll explain the latter in a bit. We'll start with social media, which is a pretty easy concept to understand. Here's how Cuban broke it down, in that same blog post:

 Every type of content has some quotient of participation value... At the top of the scale are games/shows/movies/events that potential viewers have predicted to have high participation value. These are events that we look forward to not only watching or attending, but that we plan in advance how we are going to extend our participation...

The role of the internet for high participation games/shows/events is not to show them, it's to enable the participation. The explosion of Social Networking and social networking enabled games and applications have strengthened this as the internet’s role. It's improving TV ratings of shows with high participation value.

 If you were on Twitter or Facebook during the gold-medal hockey game, you know exactly what he's talking about. I'd say 90-plus percent of the tweets or updates I saw for about an hour or two were about the game, and that chart above confirms that it wasn't just because I have a sports-heavy group of friends and followees. Think about how powerful a force that is, which didn't exist just until just a couple of years ago. If you weren't watching the game, you felt like you were missing something (and for the record, you were). How incredible a marketing channel is that?

 I have no doubt that this is playing a huge role in increasing ratings, particularly for big events. But it doesn't quite explain why smaller games are getting better ratings, too. For that, I'll turn to my "natural selection" theory, which I explained on my blog during the fall:

 People are time-shifting a much higher percentage of their TV watching. DVR, Hulu, torrents, iTunes—there are so many alternative ways to watch scripted television that there’s no point in basing your schedule around your favorite shows.

Except sports, of course, which will always be time-sensitive. So all of a sudden, sporting events are the only shows that people need to base their schedules around. Time shifting other shows has lifted some of that burden—if before you were going to choose between going out Thursday and missing the Office or going out Saturday and missing the football game, you’re now always going to choose the game, since you can watch the Office whenever you want.

I've been on the sports media bandwagon for years now for this exact reason, so I'm not surprised to see it actually happening. Sports are, for the most part, DVR-proof— because they are so time-sensitive, most people will always watch sports live and with commercials, just as they always have. This is a major boon for the leagues, which I'd say are in the strongest position of any major content creators in the world right now.

As much as advertising is becoming more and more fragmented, it should remain a viable model for sports programming until the end of time— something you can't say about cable subscription fees, which are already getting their lunch eaten by pirated streaming sites. Social media should only make this trend that much stronger. If you could bet on sports television contracts as futures, I'd be going very long right now.

Shawn Hoffman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Shawn's other articles. You can contact Shawn by clicking here

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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amazin_mess

Honestly, I would rather watch at home than pay the crazy prices to go to a game. It's just not worth the hassle, or the cost, anymore.

Mar 18, 2010 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
woodruff11

I think the weather played a big role in the recent ratings. Major population centers have been slammed by storms during/right before some of the events mentioned.

Mar 18, 2010 11:18 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

This may have had some effect on recent games, but doesn't explain the huge surge in the fall as well.

Mar 18, 2010 12:38 PM
 
BurrRutledge

Shawn, the social media angle of the story is very interesting. Ten years ago, if you were walking down the street with your friends and you heard a roar from a nearby bar, you might head down that way to find out what caused the commotion.

Now, if you're online (or connected via mobile app) and are anywhere near a television, when you hear the digital roar of your twittering/facebooking friends, you can change the channel on your tv.

As to the graphs in the article, there is no scale on the second graph. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that there was a worldwide interest in the sporting event, it could simply be that a large majority of the group watching (likely to be a very interested and engaged group) was also able to update their Facebook accounts. The simultaneous activity of these millions of interested and engaged viewers could easily create the spikes shown without requiring "worldwide phenomenon" status.

However, the spike in online chatter would almost assuredly have caused increased viewership as the game continued, drawing new viewers from the vast audience of folk who were less inclined to watch from the beginning but heard the online roar.

Mar 18, 2010 12:28 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

I love this analogy.

Re: the chart, I should've mentioned that it was simply confirming reports that the game did very well outside the US and Canada.

Mar 18, 2010 12:40 PM
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

Twitter is the new sports bar? If so, we have to figure out how to tip the waiters. Because that's what writers will be soon.

Mar 18, 2010 12:32 PM
 
SC

Can you pay your mortgage in +1's?

Mar 18, 2010 13:27 PM
rating: 5
 
SC

Don't forget about HD. In the last 2-3 years, HD penetration has jumped dramatically, and sports are certainly among the biggest beneficiaries from the shift.

Put another way, why are people watching more sports on TV? Because the product is much better than it was just a few years ago.

Mar 18, 2010 13:26 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

This is a really good point. Not sure if it necessarily hit its tipping point like social media did in the last year, but certainly should have some impact.

Mar 18, 2010 13:37 PM
 
SC

HDTV adoption in U.S. households is nearly at the 50 percent mark, a number that has doubled in the last two years, according to research released by Leichtman Research Group, Inc.

This growth should continue, especially as the death of analog TV means almost no SDTVs are being sold new in the US.

Mar 18, 2010 14:11 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

Awesome stuff SC, thanks.

Mar 18, 2010 14:22 PM
 
nateetan

Definitely agree with this. I'm certain that the Winter Olympics benefited from HD hugely this year as its's the first one where HD is so dominant.

Snow + HD = Mega-Win.

I could sit and just watch replays of the ski jumpers hitting the ground and see the snow fly up in the air.

Oh, yeah, and HD+projector on 100" screen = awesomeness for everything. :)

Mar 18, 2010 15:21 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

BP Demographics FTW!

Mar 18, 2010 19:45 PM
 
Brock Dahlke

I would like to take a look at the ratings of a certain sporting event as some milestone or record is being approached. Like when a pitcher has a no hitter through 6 innings, a few years ago you would have had to be lucky enough to drop by mlb.com or some sports site at the right time to realize this event was taking place. But now with Twitter and Facebook updates more people will learn that it is taking place. I think it would be interesting to get the amount of viewers of a certain game from MLBAM to see how much the viewership increases when a historic event is close to taking place. And i'd gander a guess that in the last few years that increase in interest would be much larger than in the past.

Mar 18, 2010 14:04 PM
rating: 0
 
Ira

The easiest way would be to look at the ratings for the second half of Mark Buerhle's perfect game. If they spiked, you know why.

Mar 18, 2010 15:12 PM
rating: 0
 
Ira

There's another aspect to this. People HAVE been DVR'ing sports games for years now. But its much less possible now. The reason you could get away with DVR'ing a game was that you could insulate yourself from the score and still watch the game later. Now, with the advent of mobile television devices and streaming content and, more importantly, streaming scores and score update, its much tougher to insulate yourself from a game you are recording.

You'd have to walk around blinfolded with your hands over your ears going "NANANANAANNA" in Edmonton that night not to know how the Hockey game was going.

Since this penetration of scoring updates has gotten so good, sports have become time-sensitive again.

Mar 18, 2010 15:11 PM
rating: 0
 
nateetan

Yes, but % of sports DVR'd <<< % of scripted TV DVR'd, so that has little effect on the base point of the article.

Mar 18, 2010 15:23 PM
rating: 0
 
RaymondV

It's all about Internet penetration. Just a few years ago the Internet wasn't everywhere, but now it's on everybody's desk or phone. It's pointless to DVR sports. WIth the World Cup being played in the afternoon this June, i thought I would DVR the games and watch them at night, but just the other day I realized that just won't work.

Mar 18, 2010 19:21 PM
rating: 0
 
Rider11

Shawn - a great article, I'd like to add a little bit of context in terms of the history of television. As a medium, television thrived on "liveness" in it's early years - literally broadcasting as many "live" events as possible, whether scripted, event-based, news, sports, etc. Part of that was technology, part of that was the legacy of the radio networks who were the early models (and operators of) the television networks. Even though that "liveness" essentially fell away in prime time, TV was something that had to be experienced in the moment, until the late 1970s when VCRs introduced the concept of time-shifting.

While the coincident growth of cable television and a multiplicity of "networks" temporarily fractured the audience, in fact people have been watching more TV than ever. The truly live events - sports and breaking news - are the only time we "need" television. In this sense, sports is following what "American Idol" and the other "live" reality shows have carved out as their niche at the top of the Nielsens. I always see a lot of "Idol" updates on my fb status page, as well as "Lost" (which, because of its unpredictable plot, has developed an audience that needs to experience the show "live" at the same time). Luckily, there have been some very exciting sporting events recently that have brought this to the fore. I'm not sure if it will mean too much during the regular season of baseball, but it definitely augurs well for the playoffs; a seven-game series in the post-season could easily surprise those who continue to dismiss baseball as irrelevant (coff sportscenter coff).

Mar 18, 2010 21:11 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

Thanks Rider. I think the most amazing part of all this is that social media actually seems to be de-fragmenting the market (I think I just made up a word). If you had asked somebody a couple years ago, I guarantee you they would have guessed the opposite would happen.

Mar 18, 2010 21:36 PM
 
DavidHNix

The "Fall of Empire" theory: less bread ---> more circuses

Mar 19, 2010 08:51 AM
rating: 0
 
Travis G.

i still DVR every sporting event i watch and rarely watch them 100% live. true, i always try to watch them the same night, but watching commercials is something i never do (the Super Bowl being the one exception), even during sporting events.

Mar 20, 2010 23:06 PM
rating: 1
 
bprocks1

Hi Shawn:

Nice article, but you fail to mention that ratings are being "counted" differently, at least in Canada they are.

Mar 21, 2010 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
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