Is on-demand TV behind the decline of live sports viewership?

Last night I — along with countless other men around the country, I imagine — was subjected to So You Think You Can Dance?

In fairness, I’d uttered the fateful words to my (lovely, beautiful) girlfriend: “Whatever you want to watch, honey.” A nanosecond later, we were on a one-way trip to Dance-town.

Somewhere, in between the sultry rhumba numbers and pitch-perfect tragic backstories, I reflected on just how radically different the on-demand and live TV viewing experiences have become. As someone with a company dedicated to activating casual fans, my own behavior bodes ominously for the industry.

How can an industry built around live viewing capture casual fans in the on-demand era?

A preliminary glance at the numbers shows that since an inflection point in 2012, Netflix subscriptions have exploded while Monday Night Football ratings tanked.

We have no idea, of course, how causal the relationship is — but I suspect it’s pretty dramatic. The fact is, on-demand TV offers a more compelling, convenient and consistently entertaining product to casual fans. Here’s why.

On-demand TV watching is different

So You Think You Can Dance? premiered in 2005. I didn’t watch it then, but if I did, I would likely have experienced it as appointment viewing: live. The entire country tuning in to the designated channel at the designated time, sharing in the experience, talking about it the next morning at work.

It’s unlikely that my attention would have been shared with other devices. Perhaps my laptop, but without Twitter or Facebook, there wouldn’t have been a ton of compelling, high-refresh content out there. Smartphones had yet to appear. No, it seems inevitable that I, and millions of other people, would have parked myself on the couch for a few hours of TV. The American way!

In 2017, the consumption pattern couldn’t be more different. Our watch session began with my girlfriend checking to see if a new episode was available. Then, we started it. Not at 9pm sharp (get there ten minutes early to claim the best couch spot). No, we started it at 9:12, or 9:17, or whenever we felt like it. We paused the program several times to make tea, run to the bathroom, or argue over the crossword (we were both doing it simultaneously on our smartphones). When ads came on, we muted the TV and did other stuff. (We could always pause the program, so there’s no pressure to stay in front of the TV).

To me, the idea of tuning in at a specific time for a program, and watching it uninterrupted to completion, isn’t just unattractive — it’s unthinkable.

For casual fans, on-demand viewing beats out live

On-demand TV is way more than convenience. As a consumer, it offers me guaranteed entertainment — much moreso than live sports.

As a casual sports fan, I’m primarily interested in sports for the entertainment value — the athleticism of play, the heroes and villains, the storylines. A 3+ hour professional game has dozens of ad breaks and the uncertainty that comes with live sports (for every thrilling nailbiter, there are more than a few defensive slugfests and blowouts). Compared to Game of Thrones, it’s a hard sell to make.

While diehard fans will make the time to watch their teams and sports, and park themselves on the couch at the appointed time and place (or better yet, buy tickets), we casuals are a harder sell. We’re more likely to choose Netflix (or, yes — So You Think You Can Dance) over live sports.

The sports industry must adapt to these changing behaviors — or face irrelevance.

How the sports industry can reach casual fans in the post-Netflix world:

  • Leading with casual fan-focused experiences. At Casual, we’re building a sophisticated national database of casual fan preferences and behavior. Why? Because casual fans are the future. If the sports industry can’t figure out how to embrace casual fans in the post-Netflix era, the ship is in big trouble indeed. And the best way to embrace casual fans is not through
  • Letting go of ratings in favor of holistic interaction tracking. With live television viewership no longer serving as a bellwether for fans like me, the sports industry must break their addiction to TV ratings, and cozy up to those long embraced by ecommerce — metrics like content consumption and exposure-to-conversion pathing.
  • Embracing innovation as a principle, not an experiment. It’s time for the industry to be bold. Not reckless — but creative, imaginative, unafraid. Teams and leagues that make a meaningful investment in innovation stand the best chance of producing good ideas. Form an internal skunkworks; schedule big, open, creative-thinking blocks; reserve time for caffeine-fueled “anything goes” brainstorming sessions. Don’t sit in the tix-n-clix rut.
  • Developing unique sponsorship angles. Sponsors want to get in front of fans, and they want good value for their money. If the metrics sponsors care about are waning, then our answer must be to come up with more interesting, unique and noteworthy opportunities for sponsorship.
Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Jack Reeves’s story.