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Sports Events' TV Ratings Are Down. Where Are The Fans Who Missed Them In Pandemic?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sports has a TV ratings problem. In recent big events - from horse racing, to hockey, to golf, to basketball - numbers are down, sometimes to historic lows, which is surprising because during the shutdown of the pandemic, many fans said they were desperate for their return. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It's 2020, so, of course, the downturn in ratings for sports on TV has become political.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome to the NBA bubble.

LEBRON JAMES: Let's go.

GOLDMAN: The NBA in particular, with its steadfast commitment to social justice issues, prompted a Twitter spat this week. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said the NBA's historically low ratings in the current finals were because every game was a left-wing political lecture. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban fired back - paraphrasing here - poppycock. TV ratings watchers acknowledge sports and politics are doing some ratings damage.

TOM UMSTEAD: Are there a handful of people who will follow what Trump is saying with regards to the politics of the NBA and as well in the NFL? Yes.

GOLDMAN: Tom Umstead works for Multichannel News, a cable TV trade newspaper.

UMSTEAD: But I don't think that has an overall effect on the numbers.

GOLDMAN: Other factors that might - viewers turning to actual politics on news programs as next month's election approaches, the games with few or no fans and fake crowd noise, taking away from the usual excitement. A major culprit, though, seems to be a September-October confluence of sports caused by pandemic restarts that all happened around the same time.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Almost too many men on the ice there on Tampa. Tyler Johnson jumped on the ice.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: ...Deals, and this one is lined down the right field line towards the corner. And that...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Screen coming from Russell. Five to shoot - nice find. Bird to Russell, and Wilson with the eraser rejection.

MARC BERMAN: We have a lot of it now, all at the same time. So it's sort of like, what do I watch now?

GOLDMAN: That's Marc Berman. He started the website Programming Insider, where he writes about TV and media. He says the glut of sports helps explain the dip in everything from the NBA to hockey's Stanley Cup Finals and their lowest numbers in 13 years, to golf's U.S. Open and its 55% plummet from last year's ratings. All of those events are normally played in June.

Last week, sportswriter Jason Lloyd tried to reverse the ratings trend singlehandedly.

JASON LLOYD: Set the alarm, got up early in the morning, made some coffee and sat down and watched the French Open.

GOLDMAN: And so began 20 hours of TV chaos. That's what he titled his article in The Athletic about watching tennis, baseball and basketball nonstop.

LLOYD: It was really - it was a fun day.

GOLDMAN: Lloyd illustrated the mashup of sports that has both overwhelmed and thrilled fans. He thinks things will get back to normal somewhat when sports return to their usual seasons and fans once again fill the stands. But Lloyd also says the current ratings dip shouldn't be explained away just by the pandemic.

LLOYD: With cord-cutting now and with people moving away from traditional television, and the younger generation is just watching the highlights and not necessarily the games, I think all of this contributes. And that part is not changing.

GOLDMAN: But neither is the appetite for live sports. Tom Umstead of Multichannel News says the proof is the multibillion-dollar bidding for those sports for networks and streaming services, which he predicts will continue despite the doom and gloom about ratings. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.