Are TV ratings really down for major live sporting events in the US?

Every time a major sporting event occurs in the US in the past year I hear or read a news report indicating that viewership is down across the board. Nielsen ratings show viewership declining for basically every sport:

– Viewership of the Winter Olympics is down 8% since Sochi in 2014. (

– The Super Bowl has supposedly seen a 7% decline in viewership year-over-year, and regular season NFL games are down 9% on average. (

– For the World Series game 7, viewership has gone down 30% year-over-year. (

– The Masters golf tournament viewership has gone down 11% since last year. (

I could go on and on but as a sports fan, and as someone who has worked in digital analytics for the past decade with some of the largest broadcast media companies in the world, I find this hard to believe.

Are ratings down for people whom are sitting down in their living room and flipping on their TV to watch a major sporting event? Without a doubt. However, that isn’t the only way that people are consuming sports content these days and I don’t believe all viewing patterns are being correctly counted.

The first thing we must understand is how ratings are currently gathered, measured, and reported. The gold standard for TV measurement is the Nielsen ratings. Nielsen began measuring TV audience ratings in 1950. Until a few years ago, it really hadn’t changed its formula. Nielsen ratings are gathered in one of two ways, with viewer “diaries” or set meters.

Viewer “diaries” are when a target audience self-records its viewing habits for Nielsen based on Nielsen’s requirements and then Nielsen uses statistical models to provide a rendering of the audiences of a given show, network, or hour of day.

Set meters are a little more sophisticated as they use a small device to connect to a TV in selected homes. These devices automatically collect and transmit the viewing habits of the household. This allows for much more accurate data collection on viewing habits, but again this just comes from a sample of viewers and Nielsen uses statistical models to provide larger estimates.

Yet, Nielsen’s current ratings system does not capture a comprehensive picture of the screen habits of the digital viewer. Don’t believe me? They have even said so themselves ( Nielsen is very aware they need a complete overhaul of the ratings system with the introduction of Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming video systems, with phones, tablets, and computers that can access digital live and on demand TV, and with cable company apps that are available on those devices. The content consumption landscape for viewing live and on demand TV is extremely fractured at the moment and is only going to get worse.

With so many different companies offering live streaming TV it becomes extremely difficult to measure total audience viewership. So many companies are jumping into the streaming industry to try and compete. Consumers have the option to cutting the cord from their primary cable provider, and signing up with a streaming service such as YouTubeTV, Hulu Live, Dish’s SlingTV, AT&T’s DirecTV Now, or Sony’s PlayStation Vue to name a few. There have been rumblings of both Comcast and Apple getting into the market as well ( (

So why is it so hard to measure audience viewership outside traditional TV? Let’s take ESPN as an example. ESPN screen time on a TV via your cable provider can be measured with Nielsen’s current ratings system. But because you have a cable provider, you can also watch ESPN via the ESPN App that is available on your phone, which could be an Android device or an iPhone, your tablet (again Android or Apple), your computer through your browser, or through a streaming device such as an Apple TV or Roku. Viewership on all these devices can be measured. ESPN currently measures all devices where their app is installed with their own analytics software so they know their audience. Nielsen has also come up with a way to measure most of those devices simultaneously, called Total Audience Measurement.

This is not the whole problem though. ESPN then partners with other providers that aren’t cable specific such as YouTubeTV or Hulu Live. Now those companies also offer multiple ways to consume the content the same way that ESPN did, on phone, tablet, computer, or streaming devices.

There are dozens of ways that a person can consume ESPN. How can you possibly have one company track them all and report the numbers the next day on the audience of a live broadcast?

Media organizations, digital agencies, and cable providers are all trying to figure it out and no one is succeeding. Meanwhile, advertisers think they are reaching fewer and fewer people, and the media keeps reporting that there are fewer people watching live sporting events. People like to talk about fake news. This isn’t fake news — it is just uninformed news. It will take a massive amount of time and effort to accurately and correctly measure the total audience of a live TV sporting event in near real time – and we’re not there yet.

The audience isn’t shrinking, it’s just moving to a place they feel more comfortable accessing the content.

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