Part of the challenge, you see, was trying to get a clear signal.

Really, it was an artform — shifting the knob ever so slowly, ever so softly, a degree to the right or left, hoping to boost the volume a bit while tamp down the static just enough to make out what was going on. 

I’d squint and sigh, inching the dial back and forth in what all too often was a futile attempt to secure an unfettered, unhindered reception. It didn’t really matter. The crackle that would accompany Larry Munson’s voice as he fretted his way through a Georgia game only heightened the experience.

For generations of sports fans, the radio was the only way you could connect with your favorite team week in and week out, ensuring you didn’t miss a single play. From Munson urging Lindsay Scott to run to John Ward correcting himself after a Notre Dame field goal slid by the goal posts to cap off a Tennessee victory, it was these voices that brought our favorite teams into our living room.

Today, we don’t need the radio. 

ESPN and Fox Sports have helped to bring virtually every college football game played to a television, or iPhone, near you. There are entire networks dedicated to all of our professional leagues and various popular sports.

There is no shortage of available avenues to watch sports, and yet … our collective interest appears to be waning. With few exceptions, like the WNBA, the audiences for live sports has fallen over the past few years, including some fairly steep drops in 2020.

Feel free to include me in that data.

With the exception of a handful of Georgia football games, a couple of Everton matches (early weekend starts are nice!), and the College Football Playoff semifinals, it’s difficult to come up with an entire sporting event that I have watched from start to finish in the past year. Whether it’s a lack of interest in the participants or the state of life these days, my desire to watch live sports simply has faded over time.

And that’s very different than circumstances even 10 years ago. Full day of college football? Sign me up. Duke and North Carolina basketball game? Sure. MLB’s game of the week? Let’s go.

Yet, despite my growing disinterest in viewing sports, my appreciation and understanding of sports has grown. I still can tick off the teams playing the best in the NBA right now, cycle through who’s doing well on the recruiting trail and speak at length on why Bryson DeChambeau’s game doesn’t fit Augusta National Golf Club.

That’s because even though I’m not watching the games happen, I’m still consuming the same amount of sports as I always have. Rather than flip on the TV to watch Alabama take on LSU, I’m just following along on Twitter, monitoring the responses from beat writers, analysts, former players and everyday fans. 

My continued interest in and appreciation of sports, but lower desire to watch live sports would appear to be contradictory. That is until I began to form a simple hypothesis — perhaps my reliance on Twitter, as well as other digital media platforms, is merely the evolution of my childhood reliance on AM radio.

What’s fueling this ratings dip

Before anything else, let’s address the challenges live sports have when it comes to viewership.

To assign a singular reason to this drop in eyeballs would be a misguided effort, but that definitely hasn’t stopped some people from doing so. It’s easy for some to say increased political activism and calls for social justice have driven some fans away, but it’s also a woefully incomplete take. 

While it would be wrong to suggest such actions haven’t impacted some fans, as this Harris survey indicated, it is even more wrongheaded to suggest it’s the primary reason. For starters, there are several other pieces of data which suggest the exact opposite, like this TideWater survey commissioned by ESPN.

Additionally, ratings have been falling across the board for several years. This article from QZ in 2018 hints at the coming challenges facing the primary professional leagues. As Richard Ting, the global chief design officer for R/GA, told the publication:

Nowadays, consumers have such fragmented attention spans. They have such limited time to devote to a two-hour-long basketball game or three-hour-long baseball game. Sports are competing with so many different things, like video games and YouTube videos.

It’s also important to remember the dynamics of the pandemic and the ensuing impact on sports schedules turned everything upside down. What was hailed by some sports-lovers as dream scenarios ultimately backfired, forcing fans to choose between a host of sports that rarely, if ever, had to compete for views.

As Eric Jackson, the sports business reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, noted, the pandemic simply changed the complexion of the entire sports year.

“It’s true that cable networks are fighting for attention with more platforms than ever to consume media,” Jackson said. “But the decline in sports viewership last year is largely attributed to less interest in sports overall thanks to truncated seasons, with canceled and rescheduled games, and little to no fans. The numbers actually started off well last spring but were unable to sustain.”

Let’s also not forget that 2020 also featured a contentious presidential election, leading to record-setting ratings for the primary cable news networks. There are only a finite number of viewers in the U.S., and the gamemanship of the race for the White House simply attracted more interest than an NBA Finals matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat.

Understanding the digital disruption

If I’m using social media more during live sports — watching the games less and scanning my feed more — could that mean this drop in viewership corresponds to greater social media utilization?

Well, once again, we might have more questions than answers.

Research from YPulse found that 70 percent of Gen Z and Millennial sports fans agreed with the statement “I don’t need to watch sports games live to keep up with what’s going on.” And the live sports viewership rates of that same demographic bloc fell from 86 percent in 2016 to 65 percent in 2019.

Craig Kanalley, the digital insights manager for Pegula Sports & Entertainment, said social media is one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

“The TV viewership decline, in my opinion, is due to a number of factors in the last several years,” he said. “This includes young people preferring new forms of ‘screen time,’ like social media. This also includes the rise of digital streaming as an option to consume content that traditionally has been on TV, and some of the outdated ratings measurement metrics are being updated as we speak, with better metrics coming within the next few years. 

“And also, the rise of quick video sharing, which enables highlights to be distributed more quickly, in a new way and in some cases ‘remixed’ if you will, than ever before.”

Dr. Ann Pegoraro is a professor at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) where she is the chair of the school’s sports management program and co-director of E-Alliance, Canada’s research network for gender equity in sports. She’s conducted extensive research on how the dynamics of digital platforms and social media are impacting how sports are consumed, and what that means for the business of sports moving forward.

Pegoraro noted that traditional television is enduring a period of severe disruption with platforms like DAZN and Twitch, as well as the launch of several apps by the various leagues, impacting the viewing habits of sports fans. Social media is exerting its own influence during this disruption.

“Social media is changing how we view sports — sports are streamed live through Twitter (WNBA), Facebook (MLB), etc — so TV viewership will go down,” she said. “Social media engagement during those live streams will go down, but the pre-game and post-game chatter on those sites will still be very high.”

One challenge, of course, is that just as as multiple sports competed for a limited group of viewers this past fall, a diversification of platforms might inadvertently restrict engagement.

“Our research has found that social media engagement is lower when games are on non-traditional platforms,” Pegoraro said. “And my hypothesis around this is that they are watching the game on the second screen — phone or computer — so they are not engaging as much. The second screen becomes the first screen.”

Tuning in to what you want

If we concede that viewing habits are changing and innovations in digital media are driving some of those changes, does that mean we might actually be reverting to the way things were in yesteryear? 

“I completely agree with your premise that Twitter has become like the radio of old,” said Kanalley. “It’s a way to stay connected and find fellow ‘homers,’ a community to tap into and share experiences even if we are not all watching the actual game at the same time.”

That’s definitely true from my experience. My feed is a carefully curated one that follows an eclectic assortment of Georgia- and Boston-based sports media and bloggers, as well as some of the funnier, more engaging influencers and fans across the spectrum. In doing so, it creates a feeling of community as the game is unfolding, immersing me in a group of individuals who at the very least appear to be equally as invested in the outcome of a particular contest as me.

And it also means, much like listening to AM radio so many years ago, I don’t have to be fully present while it’s happening.

But, should something significant occur, I can easily flip over and see what’s going on, while checking out the replay in my feed.

“When there is an exciting game on the line, coming down to the wire, I have no doubt that social media fuels TV ratings, and a similar thing can be said for news events,” Kanalley said.  So it can be used in a way to drive tuning in still.  So social media and new tech shouldn’t always be viewed as a threat. When used properly and in tandem, it presents a new opportunity to expand the audience.”

Social media also is bringing the level of real-time expertise thanks to enhanced access to knowledgeable pundits, as well as former coaches and players.

Richard Johnson, a contributor to SEC Network’s Thinking Out Loud, routinely breaks down some of college football’s best plays during a game and shares them on Twitter, offering insights into why this particular fade route was so devastatingly effective in this particular situation. It’s the type of analysis you can get from Kirk Herbstreit during a live broadcast, sure, but it’s one you can go back and view in your own time rather than a five-second break between plays.

A new AM radio for the masses?

Perhaps I’m overthinking this whole thing.

Perhaps my attention span has changed, my priorities shifted, my interests forever altered.

But that doesn’t necessarily feel right, does it?

I still get the same thrill when my team wins, and I still sort through the “what ifs” that plague me when they lose. It’s just that rather than occupy three hours on a Saturday afternoon or four hours on a Tuesday evening, I’m able to get that same level of connection by just occasionally checking my phone.

The sardonic, yet witty Tweets of “Dawg Sports” may have replaced the anxious tone that permeated Munson’s gravely voice for me, but the end result is the same. There’s a connection with the game that goes beyond the game itself, allowing me to experience and enjoy what happens on the field no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

Social media isn’t going to replace the experience of live sports, whether you enjoy them in-person or by gathering — hopefully post-pandemic — at a friend’s house. But it can enhance them in some small way, ensuring you can stay in-step with your favorite team regardless of where you are.

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