TV ratings for sporting events drop

Aliyu Saadu and Keion Cage

Image by Associated Press

Professional and collegiate sports’ TV ratings dropped to record lows in viewership during 2020 and the beginning of 2021 due to adjustments to the COVID-19 pandemic safety regulations.

According to Sports Media Watch, the 2020 NBA Finals and 2020 MLB World Series averaged below a 5.0 rating for the first time in history. The 2020 Masters Tournament final round received its lowest average in history with a 3.4 rating. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Final rating dropped 61 percent.

Low TV ratings can have a significant negative effect on the finances of leagues. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many sporting events to be canceled or postponed.

The NBA had to suspend its 2019-2020 season for nearly five months to adjust to the pandemic and government safety protocols. MLB had to shorten and delay its 2020 season. The postponements and delays led to the NBA playoffs, MLB playoffs and start of the NFL season to be played around the same time. 

“People’s ability to consume all that content doesn’t expand to meet the oversupply of events,” Fox Sports head strategist Mike Mulvihill told the New York Times. “If people were spending 80 percent less time watching sports in May, they don’t have the capacity to watch 80 percent more in October.”

According to Sports Media Watch, the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship averaged an estimated 18.65 million viewers across the ESPN networks. This game was the least-watched national college football championship ever recorded. The game’s viewership had not been close to that low since the 2005 USC-Oklahoma National Championship, which averaged a 13.2 rating and 21.45 million viewers. 

“Even in a pandemic, you can’t watch everything at once,” strategic media consultant Patrick Crakes said in an interview with SportsPro. “If you’re going to lower the pool of the casuals, and you’re going to be depending more and more on a heavier type of sports fan, even those guys and gals are going to have trouble sorting out a crowded environment. You have to make some choices.” 

The ratings highlights of sporting events in 2020 were the NFL Draft and first episode of “The Last Dance,” a documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls. According to, the NFL Draft averaged 15.6 million viewers in the first round. SMW reported that “The Last Dance” had nine episodes in the top 50 of the most-watched sports telecasts of 2020.


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