Who's Really Watching Sports? Q&A With Paulsen Of Sports Media Watch

Television ratings are discussed nearly as much as player statistics these days in sports media. They are also some of the most misunderstood statistics in the world. Debates rage about their accuracy, yet select ratings seem to move the meter more than others. Plus, when it comes to market sizes, hype machines and groupthink, the numbers are spoken of as a misguided declaration of quality, as Super Bowl 48 proved earlier this month.

Recently, Paulsen of Sports Media Watch published the “Demo Reel” series, which featured analyses on the viewership of several major non-NFL events in 2013. Included in the study were the NBA Finals, MLB's World Series, the 2013 BCS games (played January 2013 after the 2012 regular season), the men’s NCAA Final Four, the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final and the U.S. Open (tennis) finals for both men and women. In explaining a clearer picture of viewership beyond the NFL, this three-part series focused on age and household income, gender and race.

TSFJ spoke with Paulsen about his findings, including thoughts on female fans still being underestimated, money to be found in the NHL and the lack of racial diversity in viewership outside of the NBA.

(You can also find the first edition of his Demo Reel here.)

TSFJ: So, let’s start with a simple question. Why the Demo Reel? Sports fans have heard more about television ratings than ever before, yet the majority doesn’t have the faintest idea on what they are and why they should actually care about them.

Paulsen: One of the primary reasons I do SMW is to clear up misconceptions people may have about television ratings. There is a lot of contradictory data out there, and a lot of mainstream sportswriters do not differentiate between an overnight and a final rating, between household and P2+ (persons ages 2 and up) viewership, etc. As a result, I think a lot of people are misinformed about TV ratings (granted, that’s not the worst form of media misinformation). “Demo Reel” was really just another way to go in-depth on the numbers and provide some actual data to reinforce or contradict people’s assumptions of just who is watching big-time sporting events.

TSFJ: Do you think some people will look at what isn’t included in the series — notably the NFL and, to some extent, NASCAR — and believe that these observed events aren’t truly important in the hierarchy of sports? 

Paulsen: No. I would hope most people understand that I just didn’t have access to those events. I would have loved to include every major sporting event — not just the NFL and Daytona 500, but also the Triple Crown and the golf majors.

TSFJ: Specifically to the data itself, starting with Age and Income in Part 1, it seems that some of the perceptions of certain leagues hold true. Major League Baseball, which is looked upon as for old people, skews toward said older viewers. The NBA, which is labeled as for the young, has a greater hold on younger ones, including kids. What would you say contributes to that, at least in terms of ratings?

Paulsen: It’s tough for me to answer because I don’t want to engage in some of those "generation generalizations" that we see so often ("millenials are this, boomers are that"). I would suggest that the NBA is appealing to younger viewers not for the action on the court, but for the attendant narratives — the league, especially since July 8, 2010, [Note: the night of The Decision] has been one of television’s most successful reality shows. Baseball, on the other hand, really has not had anything to offer but the game on the field in recent years. Back in the heyday of the early 2000s, MLB had the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry and even the Cubs’ curse to fuel viewership. Now the sport’s only narratives are about steroid users who, typically, do not make it very far in the playoffs. Granted, that explanation relies on the tired stereotype that young people are about style (narratives, glitz, stars) and older people are about substance (the game on the field), but that is the best explanation I can give.

TSFJ: Household income is often alluded to with fans but not openly discussed when it comes to who watches these games (attending is a different story, of course).
There was an article that made the rounds recently that once again pitted the NHL versus the NBA in terms of attendance, despite the silliness of the debate and questionable use of tickets sold vs. actual attendees. That came to mind regarding this past Stanley Cup Final, where you observed
that the series “which was the youngest skewing event outside of the NBA Finals, would seem to have the mix of youth and affluence that advertisers crave — if only it could get larger numbers overall.”
Passionate fans hate having to defend their sport and league, but how much does this speak to the perception that the NHL isn’t truly among “the big four” of the major pro leagues in the States?

Paulsen: I think the NHL is part of the Big Four, just a very distant fourth. Some NHL fans are under the impression that the NHL is catching up to the NBA, but that is obviously not true. The league is not likely to catch up to Major League Baseball either, even with MLB in a relative slump. With that said, the NHL holds its own quite well on a local level and is capable of earning respectable numbers nationally, at least in the right circumstances (Winter Classic, Game 6 and/or 7 of a SCF). In addition, the audience makeup is pretty much exactly what advertisers want, so I’d say the league is in pretty good shape — even if not on par with the rest of the Big Four.

TSFJ: For better or worse, race always seems to get the most attention, and part three was no exception. We’ve discussed African-Americans and baseball in the past, but some readers may see the stronger viewership for the NBA Finals here and just say “I’m not surprised.” On the flip side, they may be a little stunned to see that Hispanics aren’t watching the World Series in droves. On a wide scale, Asians are barely thought of when it comes to sports fandom with some exceptions like Linsanity.

A complex question, but like the chicken or the egg, is there a bit of “perception is reality” at play here when it comes to race and sports viewership?

Paulsen: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Except for a 15-year period from 1984-98, the NBA has been criticized as "too black" for decades. While Bird, Magic and Jordan were able to transcend that and pull in many casual fans, I think the perception has largely been that the NBA is a "black sport" for "black viewers." That has not always been a good thing for the league — in 2001, when NBC was negotiating for a new NBA TV deal, Variety reported that the network was concerned by the league’s suddenly disproportionate black audience. Here’s the money quote: “The bottom-line problem with this disproportionate percentage of blacks is that most advertisers won’t pay a premium for them, even when they cluster in the hard-to-reach 18-to-34 category.”

Maybe I’m off-base here, but I would not be surprised if the general resistance to minorities in TV — rarely courted by advertisers and the networks, generally invisible in most programs — helps make the NBA an attractive property in those demographics. The NBA has arguably courted minority viewers even at risk to its own bottom line, which is a lot more than Major League Baseball can say.

TSFJ: The NFL rightfully takes pride in its strong viewership among women, but the gender discussion is also a rarity with other leagues and events. Though they do make up significant parts of audiences for the studied events, it seems like a challenge to cater to them. Would you say that the NCAA, the tennis or golf organizations, or the pro leagues just haven’t succeeded as much in reaching out to women as the NFL has?

Paulsen: I think there is a general perception that hardly any women watch sporting events, and the only ones who do are the stereotypical "girly girl" that knows nothing about the game. This is obviously not true in most cases. One out of every three viewers for the major sporting events examined was female, and while it is impossible to know people’s motivations for watching, it seems unlikely that most of them were ignorant about the game. The problem is, there has been a longstanding perception of women by advertisers as flighty, easily distracted by trivial things or generally less serious than men — which is why we get the insulting pink jersey epidemic ("dress it up in pink, then she’ll buy it"). I’d say it behooves leagues to realize that women are just as knowledgeable about sports as men, and that they do not need to be pandered to in such a ridiculous fashion.

TSFJ: Recently, the annual Harris Poll on sport popularity has made the rounds, and it’s been picked apart from many angles. Though the methodology of the Harris Poll is questioned and the Demo Reel deals with various segments of the sporting public, could you note any correlation between what pollsters say is their favorite sport and what they actually watch?

Paulsen: I think the Harris Poll is one of the most misleading measures of popularity around. One’s "favorite sport" is not the only sport he or she watches — there are many NFL fans who also tune in to the NBA Finals or World Series. That does not even factor in the "name recognition" aspect; surely more than a few respondents simply mentioned the sport with which they were most familiar. Looking at the numbers, the Harris Poll would indicate that the NHL is more popular than college basketball, even though nearly all other data indicate otherwise. Similarly, there is little evidence that Major League Baseball is more popular than college football. The Harris Poll findings merely contribute to the confusion over the hierarchy of sporting events in the U.S.

TSFJ: Before you took this deep dive, you may have had some assumptions based on your experience in measuring sports TV ratings. Where there any insights that surprised you?

Paulsen: I was surprised by the consistency of the female audience across sporting events. I figured those numbers would vary more. Also, I didn’t expect that the U.S. Open singles finals would do so well among minority viewers, especially older African Americans.

TSFJ: Finally, what should be the biggest takeaways from this study for fans or at least those in the know?

Paulsen: I would say that the biggest takeaway is that the numbers themselves do not tell the whole story. I don’t think it’s enough to know how many people are watching; in order to understand sports TV viewership, you have to know who is watching. One thing to be careful with, of course, is not to devalue a sport because of its audience makeup, something even I may have been guilty of when I suggested that MLB is in bad shape because it attracts older viewers. Advertisers may assign different values to different demographics — privileging youth and disposable income, to say nothing of racial and gender factors — but that does not mean we all have to. Ideally, a sport would attract an equal mix of viewers along racial, gender, class and age lines, but that is not likely to occur. In the absence of that, we should understand that one sport’s audience makeup does not make it superior to another.

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