Industry Voices—Ring: How will the COVID-19 hiatus hurt regular sports fandom?

Person spilling beer celebrating at a sports bar
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Brian Ring Industry Voices

Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or, out of sight, out of mind? That’s the question facing sports fandoms during the COVID-19 hiatus.

To answer the question, I’ll cover two pieces of ground.

First, how many sports fans are there?

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I’ve got brand new stats on this. Before we dive in, let’s kill the phrase “casual fan.” There’s no such thing.

After executing and reviewing dozens of D2C consumer surveys examining streaming and TV viewing behaviors in sports, streaming and related topics, you’ll find that most studies label the most active and sports fans as avid. That’s a great word. It makes sense. However, the same studies written by writers, analysts and researchers tend to refer to anyone else with less avidity as “casual fans.”

I’ve fallen into that zone and maybe you would, too. But “casual” isn’t the way I feel about sports. I love sports, but not all sports. Not all the time. Not with cheating, or terrible officiating, or poor TV production values. And not when it’s a herculean effort to get to the stadium, park the car and fight traffic on the way home. Nor, frankly, when games are boring. And, I hate to admit this, but not when my team is constantly losing. Which, by way of statistics, is a lot of the time.

In short, we’re not casual fans. We’re normal sports fans. Or, as I call them in my chart below, regular sports fans. And that true number is likely somewhere between 32% - 40% of the U.S. internet population.

Just to underscore how important this distinction is, let’s think about it in the context of Lightshed analyst Rich Greenfield’s point of view. Greenfield is one of the sharpest bears on the bundle. He invented the hashtag, #GoodLuckBundle. I agree with him on a great many issues.

But if I may humbly nitpick one of his assumptions, I believe his models are underestimating the degree to which a mislabeled and misunderstood third of the country that we all call ‘casual fans’ greatly value – and are willing to pay for – the option and convenience of watching sports … if their schedule allows; if their team is hot; if a new player is building buzz – or, if it’s the playoffs.

That describes me, and it might describe you, too. And it’s at the core of the reason that I am willing to pay for a bundle of sports that keeps me dialed-in throughout the year.

In sports, the regulars are the swing voters

With the groundwork laid, let’s revisit that question. Will sports fandom diminish by being out of sight? It depends on the regular fans. The good news is that the teams, leagues and players can impact the outcome.

Let’s break it down:

Our census representative sample shows 26% of the country are avid sports nuts. That’s a healthy number. They don’t need enticement to get back to sports. They’ll be there in full force, and I can’t wait to see the paint on their faces. I mean, masks.

Then, there are 38% that identified as having no interest in sports. But don’t think for a moment that these folks don’t impact the question of sports’ return. Sports has accrued not only a monumental cultural and economic role in American life, but also weaves some of our social civic institutional fabric, too.

On this front, I’m hopeful we’ll impact the equation to the positive. Mark Cuban has led the way on this. He’s asking everyone that’ll listen to be kind, to give back, to fight to do the right thing.

The broadcasters, leagues, teams and players have been giving back for a long time. It’s in the DNA of sports and we saw plenty of tasteful examples during the NFL Draft as well, my favorite being the delightful kid shouting out St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital before the Cleveland Browns first round pick.

The final piece of the pie is the 32 - 40% that remain. The normals. The regulars. The swing voters who’ll make or break league and team plans.

For this group, and don’t you dare call them casual, we need to keep sports top-of-mind. Because for them, I fear, the answer is out of sight, out of mind.

To counter that, we need to innovate new packages and experiences that aren’t designed for the avid fans and their fantasy teams. We need to build sports into busy, regular lives. How does that translate into the video product?

Twitter is surely a good start, but not perfect. A great example is provided by YouTube TV, which in my humble opinion is the world’s best sports TV user experience. It allows me to time-compress sports with Key Plays and Catch-Up-to-Live cloud DVR features that – along with a well-built second-screen stats interface – has helped me pay more attention to sports than is even cognitively biologically possible in a non-digital world.

For this third of sports fandom, it’s critical for the industry to develop apps, features and user experiences that help people weave sports into their lives, rather than the other way around. Sports needs to be a healthy digital habit.

This means implementing all the ideas you’ve already heard about including innovative sports highlights and content sharing experiences; many alternative feeds; two-screen interactivity and social streaming; co-watching on Zoom (i.e. any WebRTC video chat) with friends and communities; poker night with the game on; sports betting for charity or other forms of gamification specially tailored toward non-avid audiences. In short, innovation, innovation, innovation.

With that backdrop, there are two possible scenarios for the stock of sports fandom as we slowly exit the mitigation stage of COVID-19.

The first is a U-shaped recovery where all the trends pre-COVID – declining attendance, declining attention, increased fragmentation, the rise of video games – continue and deepen unabated, and the back-to-normal journey is a slog.

The second, is a V-shaped recovery, where the sports business focuses heavily on the regular fan, starting with this more respectful moniker, and understanding that we’re not bad people. It’s just that our time, money and attention is stretched thin. Help us help sports help us. Then we’ll all win.

Subscribe to Ring Digital’s quarterly research letter and access a five-year archive of streaming TV insights: https://RingDigital.tv/FutureOfTV

Brian Ring is a media tech nerd and go-to-market hired-gun with two decades of experience designing, marketing and selling video and streaming TV tech to operators, publishers, networks, studios and broadcasters around the world. He's also an independent researcher, analyst and writer that has contributed extensively to our industry's discussion about TV's evolution from free to pay, OTA to OTT, and from the big screen to all screens. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianLRing 

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceVideo staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceVideo.

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