Broadcasters struggle to adapt

Sports broadcasters have been dealt a blow by COVID-19, and most strategies to fight back aren't working.



August 13, 2021 - 2:10 PM

TAMPA, Fla. — If the defining broadcast images of the 2020 season were eerily empty stadiums, the most prescient scene for post-COVID-19 sports was covered in slime.

It happened in January, when Nickelodeon aired an alternate, kid-focused broadcast of the NFL’s Bears-Saints wild-card game. There were colorful graphics, cartoon eyes, cameos from SpongeBob SquarePants and, of course, shooting slime cannons to celebrate touchdowns.

“My 5-year-old was eyes glued to the sliming in the end zone,” said Matt Balvanz, the senior vice president of analytics and innovation at Navigate, a data-driven sports/entertainment consulting firm.

Which makes the NFL’s experiment one of the only broadcast victories of the 2020 season.

The altered schedules, sterile stadiums and rise in streaming services led to historically low TV ratings, according to Sports Media Watch, which tracks viewership numbers and trends.

The Rays-Dodgers World Series, NBA Finals at Walt Disney World and college football national championship in Miami all hit lows. The Lightning’s Stanley Cup Final win over the Stars drew the event’s lowest numbers since 2007, and the Bucs’ Super Bowl 55 win at Raymond James Stadium had the game’s worst rating in more than 50 years. 

“A lot of these events were kind of dwindling anyway,” Sports Media Watch’s Jon Lewis said. “But I think that the severity of the decline is COVID-related.”

To recapture those audiences and work around health restrictions, broadcasters experimented with more than SpongeBob.

The NFL draft gave viewers a more intimate look at prospects with shots from their living rooms. Auto racing and football tried different camera angles. Golf has more impressive shot-tracking technology. With spectators barred from the Disney bubble, NBA games added virtual fans — real fans watching the game at home and streaming their reactions to become digitized parts of the broadcast.

Though some of these tweaks were already underway, others needed a push from a once-in-a-century event and its corresponding shift in viewing habits.

“COVID kind of forced the hands of the content creators,” said David Pierce, the director of the Sports Innovation Institute at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. “People are only going to have heightened expectations for having a lot of different ways to consume the content.”

That doesn’t mean that every NFL game will have a slime-covered alternative. But it probably will result in more viewing options to reflect the what-we-want-when-we-want-it mentality forged by binge-watching Tiger King during quarantine. 

The multi-channel megacasts ESPN rolls out for big college football games? Former sports TV executive Dennis Deninger — author of the upcoming book, Live Sports Media: The How and Why of Sports Broadcasting — expects more of them.

“You can watch the game on CBS, or you can watch it on ESPN, but a second version of it will be on ESPN+ or Paramount+,” Deninger said.

ESPN has already adopted the idea; Peyton and Eli Manning will analyze 30 Monday Night Football games over three years on ESPN2 in a presentation that’s separate from the standard one on ESPN.

Perhaps future iterations will be dedicated to X’s and O’s. Or geared toward a specific team, complete with virtual fans. Or focused on one of the other emerging sports trends: