The 2020 World Series was, like most sporting events last year, not must-see TV. Nielsen Media Research reported in October that the Dodgers’ six-game victory over the Tampa Bay Rays averaged a 5.2 rating, a 12 share and 9,785,000 viewers. The average rating was 32 percent lower than the previous low for a World Series telecast – in 2012, when the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers.
You might have missed this little news item if you live in Southern California. Game 6 drew a 27.5 rating and a 48 share in the greater Los Angeles market, the highest numbers for a Dodgers game locally since Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. When a championship is on the line, we here tend to tune in.
I’m usually agnostic about television ratings for sporting events. The traditional Nielsen ratings still hold an outsized grip over the finances of broadcast networks, yet the number of people who rely on live television programming for entertainment is plummeting. From my experience, TV ratings hold little intrigue for the average sports fan, and they probably should.
Recently, the ratings for sporting events in 2020 dragged the average fan into the news cycle. Writing for The Atlantic under the headline “What The Pandemic Revealed About Sports,” Jemele Hill argued there’s a convincing story behind the low ratings for the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, tennis’ U.S. Open, and Kentucky Derby, to name a few. Specifically, to borrow the sub-headline: “The public’s emotional connection to big-money athletics has been grossly overestimated.”
But there are other ways to measure public interest in sports than just raw viewership numbers. Attending live events has been mostly out of the question over the past year, so we have to dig deeper.
TVision Insights uses facial recognition technology to determine when and if you’re paying attention to the program displayed on your TV. Their software literally follows the eyes of viewers during broadcasts. CEO Yan Liu told me that most networks, not just those broadcasting live sporting events, use TVision’s data for their advertising sales research. For industry insiders, the basic Nielsen ratings have their limitations. TVision’s attentiveness data fills a useful gap.
What does it tell us about baseball?
According to TVision, viewers actually paid more attention to Major League Baseball games in 2020 than they did in 2019 – 31 percent more over the duration of an average game. TVision’s Attention to Duration index for the average baseball game increased from 48.5 to 57.1 at a time when society’s attention span has allegedly never been shorter.
The World Series also saw a bump in Attention to Duration, from 52 to 58. TVision’s data showed a similar increase across all sports from 2019 to 2020, from 53.1 to 57.8. Remember, the indexed score doesn’t tell us anything about the size of the audience, just how well the audience is paying attention.
What’s going on here? Has the death of the public’s emotional connection to sports been greatly exaggerated?
Maybe. What I think the data tells us, at least about baseball specifically, is that the pandemic somehow siphoned off casual fans. Those who were less interested in watching games before the pandemic simply stopped watching last year, as reflected in the Nielsen ratings. When that happened, the viewers who had been dragging down TVision’s “Attention to Duration” index prior to 2020 disappeared. Meanwhile, fans who were more emotionally connected to baseball to begin with – the diehards – never stopped watching or paying attention while they watched.
There’s a way to quantify this, too.
Using TVision’s data, a team of academics recently studied attentiveness to baseball broadcasts in Japan during the 2018 season. They sorted their audience by age and gender to determine not only how attention waxed and waned over the course of a broadcast, but what these demographic factors tell us about who’s paying attention at different times during a game.
Their study showed that older people are more likely to watch and pay attention to baseball games, while women are less likely to do either. Casual baseball fans, those who were more likely to be siphoned off as COVID-19 proliferated, probably skew young and female.
The study also found that women were more likely to pay attention to commercials than the game itself. Men in the study paid more attention to the game, despite baseball commercials typically featuring brands that target men. How many of these women were only watching because their significant other had a baseball game on TV? A lot, I suspect. If some of these women stopped watching because the pandemic restricted their boyfriends’ ability to inflict a baseball game on 3-4 hours of their life, we were probably overestimating their emotional connection to baseball to begin with.
Studies like these have practical applications that affect game broadcasts. When Fox introduced six-second, split-screen ads during the 2017 World Series, the network’s logic did not rest on a prayer and a guess.
Sports fans are somewhat attention-deficient by nature. TVision assigned a whopping Attention to Duration Index of 225 to the game show “Jeopardy!” Longtime viewers know that “Jeopardy!” has only one non-commercial-related pause in the gameflow, when the host interviews the three contestants early in the show. It’s difficult to pull your eyes away from Jeopardy! compared to the down time between pitches in a baseball game, which is why baseball elicits TVision scores in the 50s. Splitting the screen to air a commercial, in theory, is a way to capture a bit more of the average baseball viewer’s attention – the male viewers, at least.
If I’m correct that the pandemic caused mostly casual viewers to lose interest in baseball broadcasts, then the league and its broadcast partners have a clear mandate. They have less reason than ever to produce broadcasts that appeal to diehards. Baseball has to win back the casual fan, whether they can attend games in person in 2021 or not.