July 31, opening night at Coors Field. No fans in the stands, piped-in crowd noise blaring from speakers, and a cardboard cutout of Dinger the dinosaur, the Rockies’ mascot, perched in an outfield seat.
Wearing a mask.
There’s your time capsule image for sports in 2020 amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Good riddance, you might mutter.
Not so fast. The sports world has changed.
“Nothing is more relentless than change, and it’s almost impossible to go backward,” said Dennis Deninger, who teaches in the Department of Sport Management at Syracuse University. “We are going to see that in almost every field and sports are not going to be exempt.”
In general, sports receded from our daily lives in 2020 due to the pandemic. And, while it’s impossible to predict what long-lasting impact the pandemic will have on sports, there are indications that change has come to two areas central to the landscape: youth participation and TV viewing habits.
There was nearly a 50% drop in physical activity among U.S. children from the start of the pandemic last spring, according to a survey conducted in September by The Aspen Institute. The study utilized a nationally representative sample of 1,103 youth-sport parents whose children had participated regularly in one or more youth sports prior to COVID-19-related restrictions.
The Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club, an organization with about 10,000 participants in a typical season, lost about 15% of its players in 2020, according to Aaron Nagel, its executive director. Smaller soccer clubs in Colorado lost as much as 40% of their participants, Nagel said.
Which concerns him.
“It’s well documented that sports contribute to the well-being of the child in early development,” Nagel said. “Involvement in sports results in less drug use, better health habits, better social habits, better grades and better professions.”
It’s clear that kids struggled without sports. A survey of high school athletes conducted by the University of Wisconsin in July found that approximately 68% of the 3,243 teens polled reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that typically require medical intervention. That was nearly 37% higher than in past studies.
“The results are both striking and concerning,” said Dr. Claudia Reardon, associate professor of psychiatry at Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health.
There are fears that the window of participation for some children slammed shut.
“I think it’s really important that we acknowledge kids maybe don’t want to go back to sports the way they were,” said Dr. Travis E. Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. “It’s a real concern. This is our opportunity to create a new youth sports system that kids want to come back to….This looks like a real pivot point.”
According to The Aspen Institute’s study, nearly three out of 10 children who played a sport prior to the coronavirus pandemic are no longer interested in participating. That figure (29%) increased from 18% in May and 19% in June.
Dorsch’s research indicates that when the pandemic ends, the trend will be to keep kids closer to home and spend less time and money traveling to play youth sports. He also foresees an increase in virtual coaching and training. Denver-based TopYa, for example, provides a learning-and-engagement platform that teaches kids to be passionate about sports and physical activity using video challenges on a mobile app.
“These sort of things were going on before the pandemic but I can see it increasing,” Dorsch said. “I can see an increase in online coaching where an individual, a family, or maybe even a league pays a fee and provides access to an online library of coaches, drills and training. It’s a nice concept.”
For many kids, soccer provides their first entry into sports, an idea Nagel embraces. The Rapids youth soccer programs organized free summer camps that drew more than 7,000 kids. Nagel believes that the summer camps’ stringent COVID-19 protocols convinced parents that it was safe for their children to play soccer this fall before the second wave of the pandemic hit.
“I was really encouraged by the level of enthusiasm and appreciation from the parents,” he said. “In a time frame when a lot could have gone wrong, I received more compliments this fall season than I ever have before in my 12 years working in youth soccer. I think that shows you how important sports are to parents and their kids.”
As for sports fans, it seemed a safe assumption that those starved of watching games would flock to their televisions when live competition resumed this past summer. That didn’t happen.
At first, the return of sports on TV was a big hit. In June, CBS’s coverage of the Sunday afternoon round of the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Open in Texas drew an average audience of 3.091 million people, the tournament’s most-watched final round in 16 years and an uptick of more than 50% over the 2019 event.
But then a strange thing happened. Viewership for most major sporting events plummeted. Ratings for the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals dropped 61% year over year, while the NBA Finals were down 51%, according to SportsPro. The World Series was the lowest-rated in history, its average declining 30% from 2019. The Masters, held in November rather than its traditional time in April, had its lowest-rated final round since 1957.
Overall viewership for Major League Baseball was up 4.2% for the 60-game regular season in 2020, but viewership for the struggling Rockies dropped 24%, according to Forbes. That came after a disappointing 2019 season when the Rockies’ TV ratings dipped 18% from 2018, when they made the playoffs. The NFL, meanwhile, remained a ratings juggernaut though overall viewership suffered a small decline.
“I think anybody would be lying to you if they’ve not been shocked by some of the double-digit dives,” Daniel Cohen, a leading sports media rights expert for Octagon Sports, told SportsPro. “The drop-off for some of the jewel events — The Masters, the World Series, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup — I don’t think anyone thought it would be that steep of a decline.”
There are a number of theories about what happened, most notably the dramatic changes to sports schedules. The NBA’s 2019-20 season, for example, was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring and didn’t crown a champion until Oct. 11, making it the longest season in history.
By the time the NBA Finals were being played, the NFL, baseball playoffs and college football were all competing for viewers. But when the pandemic ends, and once sports resume its familiar slot on the sports calendar, there is no guarantee fans will return.
“You can say it’s physics. Nature abhors a vacuum,” said Deninger, a production executive at ESPN for 25 years and author of “Sports on Television: The How and Why Behind What You See.”
Deninger said that the structure of peoples’ lives changed during the pandemic and sports was among the casualties.
“One of the dramatic things that happened is the non-linear nature of our lives, as opposed to the linear nature when everything was scheduled,” he explained. “The non-linear life works as a disadvantage to those scheduled things — like sports. When sports disappeared during the pandemic, people found other things to do for two or three hours.”
Streaming services — such as Netflix, which has more than 70 million subscribers in the U.S. — fill an entertainment void but it offers minimal sports content.
“Flexibility and freedom are the definitions of streaming services,” Deninger said. “Kids growing up in some households are now seeing less of sports. One of the ways we become sports fans is watching sports at home with mom and dad. That’s our exposure to it. But kids are getting used to a different life and it’s been pushed by our present situation. So they might not be as tuned into sports. The thinking is, ‘I can go play this video game whenever I choose or watch this program whenever I choose.’ ”
The hope, of course, is that the COVID-19 vaccines will help get back life to normal, or rather, the new normal, in 2021. For the sports world, it means adapting.
For some families, it means reviving interest in sports for the kids and their parents believing that it’s safe to return to the gym or the playing field.
For the $50 billion sports media industry, it means rebounding to find a way to compete with ever-growing home entertainment choices, as well as a recognition that the sports public just might want to spend its time doing other things.
“It’s not to say that sport isn’t being consumed with the same ferocity,” Cohen noted. “People still want to watch, but how they watch, for durations across multiple platforms, getting some of their sport from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, streaming, free-to-air, pay-TV, satellite, there’s just more platforms than ever before.
“Peoples’ behaviors are shifting, and that’s different. “If you’re going to be working from home from 8 to 6:30 every day, are you going to turn on that baseball game or are you going to go for your bike ride now?”