On the Return of Sports: TV Ratings, Novel Experiments, and Living Through History

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The return of sports has me reflecting on things, both light and heavy. As sports fans, we’re living through a moment of great entertainment and great unrest, not just the most unique sports moment of our lifetimes, but potentially the most revolutionary.



The Fun Stuff
Sports are back(ish) and the TV ratings look quite good, including those for women’s pro sports. We can’t exactly look under the hood of those ratings, but I’m curious as to what’s driving the numbers. I remain a big fan of the decidedly unscientific Twitter poll, so I asked folks if they felt that ratings were because:

  1. We just really missed sports, or,
  2. There really isn’t much in the way of substitute goods, whether that means other fresh media content, or simple lack of alternative activities.

Here’s where the poll landed:

I also informally surveyed my summer school class, who were pretty close to the same 60/40 split. There are a couple other factors worth considering. First, without sports bars to go to and a presumably lower number of people watching together in private settings, the ratings bump may just mean that usual amount of viewers are tuning in, but doing some on a higher number of independent screens. (Yes, ratings generally account for sports bars and group viewing, but those numbers can be iffy). Second, I suspect that the novelty of the current sports formats may be pulling in more curious viewers.


This has certainly been the case for me. I maybe shouldn’t admit this given how essential sports are to my career, but I don’t watch a ton of live sports, certainly not as much I did when I was younger and less than fellow sports fans in my demographic. Why? One reason is managing burn-out; I spend all day teaching, writing, and thinking about sports. It’s nice to take a break. Time zones are another factor. Living two hours ahead of my favorite teams in LA, I’m usually heading to bed as west coast action ramps up. This has been especially true since becoming a father three years ago.


But back to novelty. I’m tuning in more now than I have in recent memory and that’s because these are truly unique sports offerings. The various tournament formats and rules tweaks leagues are employing have created something notably different than the norm. The fan-less stadia and efforts to simulate crowd noise and atmosphere are fascinating in their own right, a reminder that our consumption of sport engages all of the senses.
We’re all excited to get back to “normal” (whatever that means), but I’m fascinated by the makeshift sports-laboratory that is unfolding in real-time. In the classroom, I expect to have years of fodder from just this one summer. From how we structure leagues and tournaments, to the functions of specific rules, and a host of marketing and business implications, there will be much to think about and learn from in the years to come.


The Heavy Stuff
But, as they say, it’s “more than a game.” More important than the unique playing formats and branding opportunities, the sports reset has produced an opportunity to examine the fundamental assumptions and structures upon which sport is built. For example: the political activism across professional leagues and the massive reckoning around athletic labor in the college sports setting. You may not support some of this, but you can no longer ignore it either.


History feels like a linear progression, but is moreso a series big moments, of tensions and events, that produce new realities. We are living through a bevy of these moments right now and things will be not be the same. It’s rare to be so aware that you are watching history be made, which is so much more interesting than mere novelty.

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