What Re-Opened Sports Leagues Can Teach the Four Majors About the Importance of a Quick Return

It is a regular opinion that the sport first out of the gate to bring a return to major American athletics to the general public in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic will reap major rewards.

That’s the view for today, and its no wonder then why the NBA, NHL and MLB are just as thirsty to return to action as their respective fanatics are to consume their products upon re-establishment. While news from each league has been encouraging at different levels, its increasingly likely we will see at least some of these major leagues return as spring continues to turn into summer and as we continue to combat the vile and ugly pandemic that has threatened life as we know it.

Naturally, the chief reason for these leagues to aspire to a speedy return is their finances. The loss of television and attendance money alone will trouble each and every one of them. There are MLB teams that find themselves to be cash-poor and looking to continue to run business with stability. They need revenue to ensure not having to fire non-player staff, in the name of maintaining a healthy business. Meanwhile, the NBA remains concerned with its own money in-take as well, and how that will effect its revenue-based player payroll system. This alarm is especially significant when the league has already lost one major revenue stream during this past season when it alienated itself during Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey’s foible with the Chinese government. The NBA’s financial system is predicated on the idea that revenues continue to increase, and this year could effectively break that set-up. Lastly, the NHL even at a base level would certainly like to draw the cash it generates from televising its playoffs with NBC, recouping the brunt of their television contract. Yes, dollars and cents are the first and major reason to want to come back this year and crown champions.

Obviously, there is also patriotism involved and a feeling that the show must go on for these entities. Sports are the public’s pleasant distraction, and if there was ever a time for such events- a time for a little normalcy for a few hours- it is now.

The fact remains though, getting back on the field, hardwood or ice is a matter of opportunism. It is a chance for leagues to get eyeballs in your direction and to captivate an audience. Its a chance for one of your franchises to win a topsy-tervy championship and become denoted as the new “America’s Team”. For a league like the NBA that continues to brim with popularity among younger crowds, this is obviously a big deal. However, for the NHL and MLB, it might feel like a way to turn a tide that might be heading the wrong direction. This could be a chance to ensure a greater interest and welfare for the future or your sport for years to come.

All of this reasoning relies on one specific premise, and that premise, assuming the safety of all participants, is that it is of the utmost importance to get your product in front of the public and get it there yesterday. But really, how certain are we that this premise is true?

The fact is that we aren’t. It is merely hypothesis, but as the world starts its slow turn back towards business as usual, that will include sports. Further, while the major leagues are still ironing out their specific details, we have see returns for other, individual sports with less complications. We have also see the return of select foreign sports leagues. Perhaps any of these could work as a barometer.

First out of the gate was the Chinese Professional Baseball League, actually located in Taiwan, which has done a phenomenal job of keeping its people safe during this pandemic. The nation sports a record of 42 days without a person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 within its borders. All of that is to say, they were a relative godsend when they opened their baseball season on April 12th (delayed one extra day by rain), more than 3 weeks sooner than any other postponed sports league in the world. But, did public interest really dictate that they were a godsend for sports fans like I suggest?

The fast answer seems to be that it pays to be first through the gate. Modestly, the CPBL decided to permit American viewership access to broadcasts of the 2019 champion Rakuten Monkeys’ games for about the first week of their new season. This decision led to over 1 million views each for multiple games during their first week of play, all of which came from a rudimentary Twitter stream that much of the public didn’t even know about. When the trail week ended, the leagues’ other three teams began to scramble to put together their own plans on how to broadcast games. Now, each team is streaming its home games via Twitter and there are even subscription service opportunities for American viewers if they decide they want to see every game. While its foolish to perceive that the CPBL now has some sort of foot-hold with American baseball fans, I do believe they were able to use this opportunity to improve their brand and provide themselves with more international recognition. I’d consider it a success.

The next far east baseball league to get through the gate can’t say to have been as fortunate, at least with American viewers. The Korean Baseball Organization opened up on May 5th, with the power of the World Wide Leader in Sports behind them and a complete lack of other live sports products around them to compete with. With that much going their way, the KBO gained only 173 thousand viewers on their first night. A lot of that can be explained by timing. The game was shown at 1 AM eastern time in the United States, but the fact that the KBO was incredibly outpaced by the lesser quality CPBL while having the backing of ESPN, either speaks to the power of the internet or lack of interest by the American public. Perhaps both. Had the games performed better though, best believe ESPN would have considered tape delaying games for prime time spots. The need just wasn’t there.

A better barometer though could be comparing popularity domestically within South Korea’s own borders. Opening Day was a big hit on the internet enabled sports app Naver TV in South Korea, where nearly 4.5 times as many viewers tuned in as did on the previous year’s Opening Day. While regular television ratings were only slightly up, it is certain there was some extra interest that manifested online. However, beyond Opening Day now several weeks ago, facts and figures about the KBO’s TV ratings are hard to find both domestically or for in America. ESPN editor Daniel Kim remarked during last Monday’s NC Dinos-Doosan Bears broadcast that Korean TV ratings were up, but not as much as you would expect. Meanwhile, the only further state-side ratings that I can find for the KBO come from Twitter’s @SportsTVRatings who suggested ESPN’s first Wednesday telecast of the KBO posted a paltry 68 thousand viewers. Truthfully, if the KBO’s tv ratings were doing that well, ESPN wouldn’t make them so hard to find. Further strengthening such speculation is Sports Media Watch’s reference to the KBO’s ratings as the low end of the spectrum in their predictions. Its clear to say, the American KBO experiment hasn’t been a good one, and while internet-based interest in Korean seems good (Kim didn’t say if he was just talking of TV ratings and not streams, but I would believe so) television ratings don’t seem to be through the roof in South Korea either.

What about a foreign sport other than baseball though? The German Bundesliga soccer league kicked back off on Saturday the 16th, and while its American home Fox Sports, has regarded their return in a luke-warm fashion, there seems to be some genuine interest from its American fandom. For one, last weekend’s games broadcasted on FS1 garnered viewership numbers in the 360 thousand range. Not only is that more than double the viewership of the biggest KBO game (admittedly the Bundesliga benefited from not being on in the middle of the night as well) but these are the best ratings any Bundesliga matches have ever received while being shown on FS1. They were also the 6th and 7th games all-time in American viewership for German soccer. That includes games that landed on the flagship, over-the-air Fox network. Meanwhile, the third game of the weekend, which didn’t have the privilege of including either Bayern Munich or Dortmund (like the Lakers and Celtics of the Bundesliga) had 33% better viewership than any other Bundesliga game that had ever been hosted on FS1 before last weekend. Fox threw a crappy hand at German soccer by leaving it on FS1, and while American viewers didn’t necessarily blow the doors off in terms of tuning in at large, interest really did appear spike in some lesser way.

But before we end, let’s look state-side. Both UFC and NASCAR have returned to the public psyche in recent weeks, and while they are both individual-based sports and clearly a little more niche than the four majors, there could still be something to be learned from them.

UFC had its first major showing with the presentation of UFC 249 more than 2 weeks ago. For the preliminary fights that could be seen over regular cable, viewership was up a startling 42% from a comparable night in 2019. However, ratings for those same prelims were also 3% worse off than similar ones held this past March that were both pay-per-view and competing with other concurrently running sporting events. Beyond the prelims, the actual main event seemed to perform strongly, bringing in 700 thousand pay-per-view purchases for a fight card that didn’t include a name that would regularly suggest that level of interest. To hammer home this point, UFC’s top brass Dana White gushed over the interest in interviews. The profile of UFC’s return was dictated by the combatants and media as well as the quarantine, and even without a perfect card, it appears that they had a strong showing.

Meanwhile, NASCAR seems to be performing in a healthful way as well. Last Sunday’s return at Darlington held 38% better viewership than the last race that came pre-shut-down. Just a few nights later, NASCAR then held its top level’s first Wednesday night race since 1984 and cashed in 2 million viewers. That’s more viewers combined than all three Bundesliga matches, the UFC main event and KBO’s Opening Day, for a niche sport on a Wednesday night that also dealt with forecasted rain that caused the start time of their event to change. That 2 million figure was also better than Darlington’s September 2019 race shown on a similar network on a Sunday, and while this season’s previous Sunday races often did better numbers, NASCAR really does appear to have a strong showing.

So what is to be made of all of this? First, I am absolutely certain that the concept at hand is no longer as cut and dry as “get your product on TV and people will just find it because they want sports that badly”. There are a lot of other factors at play here. Packaging, presentation and distribution are all part of the deal. For as much as the idea that people are begging for any new content gets thrown around, if that were really the case than whether or not NASCAR is on on Wednesday or Sunday wouldn’t really matter. Whether the Bundesliga was on Fox or FS1 wouldn’t matter either.

People want their sports, but that’s just the thing. They don’t just want any sports, they want their sports. That’s why a lack of knowledge of the who and what of the KBO (plus the ridiculous handling of broadcast times by ESPN) has led to little interest. Baseball fans want baseball, but better than that, they want baseball they are familiar with, and they want the best caliber of baseball in the world. Quality matters. This could also explain an impressive interest in UFC’s pay-per-view main event while prelims interest was not as impressive, and it could explain the health of NASCAR’s interest at its highest tier.

Getting your game going and giving the public the chance to consume it is a big deal, but its not the whole deal. Its not certain that hockey fans will be jumping up to see NBA games if the NBA is first league to return. We know that because excess sports fans right now aren’t jumping to watch NASCAR or Bundesliga as they have returned. Numbers are up. Interest is there, but it isn’t the type of interest that would suggest a sports fan will take whatever they can get, especially in this era of personalized playlists and television algorithms. The pandemic will not up the profile of any sports league on the merit of being first to return alone, but that doesn’t mean this can’t be a time to create an advantage. Doing so will just take more effort. It will take innovation.

In general it seems to reason that companies are innovating right now with where and how their work forces operate. This pandemic has changed business in America in regards to how we consume food from restaurants, to how we buy our groceries, to how white-collar America is operating. Companies that innovate now and innovate well will reap the benefits for years to come. The smart phone you can read this entry from is a descendant of the adversity of the space race. The jet engines that will once again propel players around the country were pushed into use due to the adversity of World War II. Adversity breeds innovation. Today is no different.

The little, four-team CPBL, barely comparable with AA level baseball, did the second best viewership of any of these sports I listed. They broadcasted their games through Twitter. Yes, I do think they benefited from being the first true sport to return, but they must be commended for their innovation (and its simplicity). They made their game easily available for the public, and the public responded. There were no subscription services, no cable packages, no paywall. The games could be watched live in the middle of the night, just like the KBO, or on demand at any time that you could locate them in the broadcaster’s Twitter feed (and they still remain this way now, by the way). They used the internet to their advantage and at least in the short run, it paid dividends.

We know the same of the KBO’s Opening Day within in South Korea as well, where fans watched from the internet-based Naver TV at a clip that was 4.5 times greater than the previous opening day.

The same old, same old isn’t going to cut it. Being the first American league back in the limelight will be a great step, but if there was ever a time to innovate, ever a time to use new technology to captivate an audience, the time is now. Getting your game in front of as many eyes as possible is key, and as people spend more and more time on their internet connected devices and as cable slowly works its way into becoming more and more of a dinosaur, now is the time to act.

If you want your sport to be the home of the new “America’s Team” you had better get cracking, because the next “America’s Team” will be witnessed online.

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