The Biggest Live-Sports Fans Are Still Watching TV, Even Without New Games

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Key insight:

It’s now been more than a month since almost all live sports were canceled, starting with the NBA, as a result of the novel coronavirus. The move left networks scrambling to deal with the upheaval of billions in TV ad revenue.

After all, brands spent almost $20 billion last year to advertise on sports-related TV programming, with close to $17 billion of that on sporting events, according to Nielsen Sports.

But while there are no more live sports, the genre’s most die-hard audiences haven’t abandoned television, according to new Nielsen data. Instead, they are spending more time than ever watching TV, branching into several other genres—and still keeping a regular diet of sports content as well.

In its new study, Nielsen looked at the viewing habits of what it deemed “heavy sports viewers” (those in the top quintile based on live-sports event viewers from Feb. 10 to March 8). Sports events accounted for 26% of their time during the weekend of March 7 and 8, the last week before the NBA postponed its season on March 11.

From Sunday, March 8, compared to Sunday, March 29, those heavy sports viewers increased their TV viewing by 10%, compared to a 23% jump in adults overall. Because they watch more TV than a typical viewer, their increase wasn’t as substantial as the rest of the population.


For adults overall, their daily time spent watching live TV grew 43 minutes between Sunday, March 8 (3 hours, 47 minutes), and Sunday, March 29 (4 hours, 30 minutes). The heavy sports viewers, meanwhile, added 24 minutes in the same timeframe, increasing from 7 hours, 12 minutes, to 7 hours, 36 minutes.

Viewing on internet-connected devices like Roku and Apple TV also saw a big jump in March, increasing 23 minutes among all adults (to 1 hour, 18 minutes) and 18 minutes among heavy sports users (to 53 minutes).

Time-shifted playback (up three minutes), DVD watching (up two minutes) and video game console usage (up seven minutes) increased less significantly among overall adults, with the sports viewers adding at a similar rate.

As for what viewers are watching with all this added TV time, SVOD viewership (streaming services like Netflix) doubled among the sports fans, but they are still spending 9% of their Sunday TV viewing on sports programming (mostly sports events, but also sports commentary and sports anthology programming).

News viewing has also increased substantially during this time.

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