There was a time long, long ago (in 2008) when watching entire football games was customary. Parents and children would consume baseball games from the top of the first to the bottom of the ninth, in person or on the couch. The first three quarters of basketball games were compelling, not just a breeding ground for flashy highlights and stat-padding. That period in time seems so distant because the way we consume sports has been changed forever.
The repeal of PAPSA in 2018, which lifted the federal ban on sports betting, was the final nail in the coffin for sports as we knew it. Fantasy sports planted the seed for a new method of fan engagement with sports in the early 1980s, and the NFL’s revolutionary Red Zone Channel launched in 2009 to redefine the way we follow a slate of games. The legalization of sports betting completed the transformation. It’s no longer possible to ignore the changing landscape of the way sports are covered and broadcast, with more than 20 states allowing sports betting in some capacity and nearly every network having some sort of partnership with a sportsbook.
Much like the way every baseball team has made it hard for a starting pitcher to achieve something great by implementing new strategies to prevent them from facing a lineup more than twice, sports seem to have been stripped of the slow-building theater we’re accustomed to seeing. Ironically, in this fall’s deciding game six of the World Series, a game remembered for Rays manager Kevin Cash’s decision to lift Blake Snell in the midst of a dominant outing due to aforementioned novel strategies, drew just 13.2 million viewers, down from 23 million in last season’s deciding game seven.
While the plummeting ratings of live sports have been a hot-button topic this year — the NBA finals also were down 51% — it’s important to peel back the layers and uncover what’s contributing to these seemingly troubling figures. It’s not as if interest in sports has declined; it’s just changed. With the rise of betting, fans need only to watch a highlight or segment of a game to see what matters to them. They’re interested in being right about how many points LeBron James will score, who will score the first touchdown of the game or how many points will be scored in total by both teams. Ratings don’t tell the story of how those people are engaging, and while there is no definitive data to explain the decline of ratings, these are surely contributing factors.
Networks have already begun to give this new fan, interested in specific elements of a game, a rejuvenated experience. For its broadcasts of the XFL, a sport which likely had a larger proportion of its audience interested for monetary purposes due to its lack of any history, ESPN decided to display the point spread and over/under on its score bug. Keeping fans abreast of live odds, not just pregame lines, is one of many ways to drive up fan engagement in this era. Gamification is another area several networks and teams have embraced, challenging fans to answer questions or make picks for the games that the networks air for a chance to win money.
Gamification can be the most powerful tool to help fans stick around for broadcasts because it promotes the thrill and predictive nature of sports betting without the risk of losing money. In that way, it allows people to compete in every game even though they may not be able to afford to wager on every game.
Sports have always produced a social environment, whether at the park, at the bar or on your couch with close friends. Sports betting has helped connect fans to the game in a new way, and it has helped build a strong community around predicting hundreds of outcomes inside of one contest. Each consumer now finally has the chance to prove what they know and see where they stack up against fellow fans and experts. As the landscape of sports media shifts, it’s important to recognize that consumers haven’t gone away, they just need to be reached in different ways.