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Published July 7, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

The weirdness of being without sports this long

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

The weirdness started with Rudy Gobert.

The Utah Jazz center decided to mock people’s fears of the coronavirus by touching microphones at a postgame news conference.
Two days later, he tested positive for the virus. Two days after that, the NBA suspended its season.

Before we knew it, sports fell like dominoes. Even the National Spelling Bee, the World Series of Poker and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament were canceled or postponed.

It has been a stressful time full of weird goings-on for those of us who love the drama of live television sports. And who would have thought the weirdness would last four months? (After all, Major League Baseball originally postponed its season opener for only two weeks.)

How weird has it been?

While governments were pressing us to stay home, television companies, desperate to fill airtime, were offering us cornhole instead of the Astros, cherry-pit spitting instead of the Rockets and ax-throwing instead of the Masters.

Tom Brady was in the news, not for all his Super Bowl rings but for ripping his pants in a golf exhibition with Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning and Phil Mickelson.

The National Football League did manage to hold a televised draft … from the basement of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s home.
Air Jordan was back. With almost no live sports to watch, a 10-part ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan set a ratings record and dominated talk radio conversation.

(Did you know that Jordan’s rookie endorsement deal with Nike was for $500,000, and the company expected to sell $3 million in shoes by the end of the deal’s fourth year? The company ended up selling $130 million in one year’s time. Jordan has made more than $1.3 billion from Nike since that first deal.)

The lack of live sports has had an immediate impact on television viewing.

On the weekend of March 7-8, the last weekend that featured live competition, the most avid sports viewers spent 28 percent of their TV time watching live games, according to Nielsen.

By the weekend of March 28-29, these heavy sports viewers were spending only 10 percent of their time watching sports-related programming.

According to Nielsen, the viewers who normally would spend lots of time watching live games were now watching movies and subscription content.

But the biggest winner was news coverage. Viewership went from 10 percent of viewing time on that last weekend of live sports to an average of 17 percent over the next three weekends.

While most of the sports landscape has changed, one thing hasn’t: Cable and satellite TV companies are charging the same amount. You pay these companies just as much to watch putt-putt golf as you would pay to watch an NBA playoff game.

Here is why.

Television is the biggest source of revenue for American sports. When people pay their monthly television bills, their money goes to television distributors, like Comcast, which in turn pay television networks, like ESPN, which in turn pay sports leagues, like the NBA. Along the way, everybody keeps a cut.

Craig Moffett, co-founder of a media research firm, explained in an article in the New York Times that American households won’t see a reduction in their bills because no cable or satellite company “will throw money at their customers when their costs of goods hasn’t changed.”

Even if customers don’t watch a single game, the majority of what they spend on bundled packages goes to sports networks. Entertainment is available on streaming services, but sports is becoming the only reason to buy bundled TV.

At this writing, it appears live sports will return to television at the end of July when both the NBA and baseball are scheduled to resume play.

If it does return, baseball won’t look the same.

Under proposed rules to deal with Covid-19, there will be no taking me out to the ballgame. Not only will there be no fans, but no smokeless tobacco or sunflower seeds, no spitting, no high fives, no bat boys or bat girls and no licking of fingers.

And let’s hope there is no banging on the trash cans.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)