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On the couch, in a bar, at work – there’s a million and one ways to watch sports. 

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has shaken up sports viewership in ways we’ve not seen before – and for a while in some regions, sports halted altogether. For Navigate, an agency that shapes insight-led strategies for brands and properties in the sports and entertainment space, their work has proven invaluable.

Matt Balvanz, SVP, Analytics & Innovation at Navigate, explains, “we help brands peek around the corner at upcoming trends – and since the pandemic, most have been flying blind”.

After an unsettled period, the gears are now grinding into motion once more, with UEFA Euro 2020 having begun and the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon. 

We’re digging into GWI Sports data to assess the viewership state of play – looking through the eyes of one agency that’s undertaking business-changing research to help marquee organizations in the business adapt.

TV vs online sports viewership: the battle rages on

“Sports fans seem to be involved with everything across the board” says Matt. “They’re more engaged on social media, with brands, you name it”.

When the pandemic was peaking, the pause of sporting events in some regions sparked a widespread decline in broadcast viewership and rise in online engagement.

The suggestion is fans were getting their sports fix from ongoing leagues in foreign countries, while some made the switch to esports as an alternative.

Even if we rewind to before the pandemic, sports viewership on broadcast TV was actually already in decline ahead of 2020. But recent data from our Zeitgeist studies suggest TV viewership (on the whole) is showing hints of revival, at least for major sporting events.

In the UK and U.S. 60% of internet users, who are fans of the Summer Olympics, intend to watch the games on live TV.

When it comes to purchasing sports content, on the whole, fans will pay up (3 in 4 are willing to pay, and 62% already do). But this is highly age dependent, with older users typically less interested in paying to watch it and more keen on attending live games.

Broadcast TV is still a massive channel for sports viewership, but if online continues to grow at its current rate, major leagues and teams should plan how they’re intending to develop and engage audiences there.

Secondary behaviors: engage the multitaskers

Over the years, our data has shown second screening is common among consumers whilst watching TV (either linear or online) – especially among younger generations. 

When we look at secondary behaviors carried out by sports fans whilst watching games, these are the ones that come out on top:

chart showing sports viewership secondary behaviors

“Sports fans are a different beast compared to your average consumer, so they deserve to be treated as their own category” explains Matt. “The way they connect and intact with sports and its surrounding culture is totally unique”.

Even when the games are on, sports fans remain connected online. And if brands invest in narrowing the focus to their own, specific audiences, they’ll get even more value from insights like the above. 

As a snapshot example, if an online betting company can see that 1 in 5 Chicago Bears fans are online betting and looking at social media whilst watching sport, they could serve them timely in-play betting ad promotions during the games on their favorite social platforms.

For the most part, fans of all kinds perform some kind of secondary activity while watching sports.

So actually watching the game forms a part of a wider experience, rather than the sole focal point.

Reaching out to your audience during a game (whilst they have sports firmly on the brain) presents an opportunity for sparking meaningful connections in the online space. Focus on creating an engagement strategy across the most prominent touchpoints to your audience, and work towards building a 360 degree brand experience.

Where are they watching?

Where they’re watching and who they’re with plays a big part in how fans experience the games.

92% of fans say they watch sports at home – which we can reliably pin on the pandemic – and something we expect to change as restrictions ease. 

But when it comes to outlooks towards live sports attendance, things have shifted a bit: 

28% of fans state COVID-19 has made them much less likely to attend an event.

And as far as who they’re watching with, ‘watching the game’ remains a highly social activity with 38% watching at friends’ houses and 33% with family members. 

29%, on the other hand, say they watch while on the move – showing the importance of online streaming services that offer mobile support as well as smart TV, PC and laptop accessibility.

It’s difficult to say for sure whether we’ll see a return to pre-pandemic figures around live event attendance, or indeed people viewing games on TV in public areas. Right now the general trend is leaning towards hesitancy around going to live events, but watch this space.

Case study: Navigate soothe worries about declining NBA viewership

Insights can be exciting, shocking, even relieving – almost always they’ll inspire you to do things a little differently.

When Navigate was tasked with looking into the NBA’s declining broadcast viewership for their clients with invested interest, the insights they found ticked all the emotional boxes above.

Sports came back onto our screens in a big way after months of inactivity, and the jam-packed broadcast calendar meant many leagues were hard pushed to recapture pre-pandemic viewership numbers. 

When alarm bells were ringing for their clients, Navigate turned to GWI Sports.

They started gathering insights around how basketball fans are consuming the content and found that only 65% of NBA fans subscribe to cable services compared to fans of other top sports (NFL, MLB and NHL).

In their blog post detailing the research, Navigate explain “while these numbers may seem concerning, NBA fans have the largest share of over-the-top media adopters among U.S. pro leagues (27.2%).”

They found NBA fans were still heavily engaged online, particularly via social media, with the number of NBA league and team followers totalling more than NFL, MLB and NHL combined.

A massive following is great, but it doesn’t drive revenue on it’s own. So Navigate set to work proving the value of this opportunity from a commercial standpoint. They found:

  • 15% of NBA fans look for products and watch live sports on social platforms compared to 12% of fans of other leagues.
  • 29% use social media for more than 2 hours a day compared to an average of 23% of fans across other leagues.

The suggestion here is the declining ratings don’t equal a decreased interest in the league. Instead fans are engaging with the NBA across an ecosystem of digital media, and leagues will be increasingly tasked with proving the value of their channels way beyond broadcast TV.

Matt explains this research let them “reassure clients that the sky wasn’t falling on the NBA. Instead their fans are finding new and exciting ways to be part of the NBA experience.”

Stay vigilant of sports viewership trends.

Fans and their relationships with sports has changed a great deal in lockdown, and it seems like some of these shifts might stick around for a while after the health risks have subsided. 

Viewership is one of these areas. The slow and steady migration online was kicked into high gear, and with more and more fans staying engaged digitally even during gametime, there’s all the more reason to have a polished digital presence.

As Matt puts succinctly, “it’s important to have the tools to reassure clients or internal stakeholders that there’s no need to panic but there’s also need to evolve.” 

In an industry totally reliant on its fans, having visibility over how they’re behaving, thinking, and feeling, helps you make the right calls for the future – the hope is viewership trends might return to semi-normal eventually, but you wouldn’t put your money on it right now.

sports data: woman holding basketball

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