NFL
August 10, 2021

Changes in Sports Viewership: How Has COVID-19 Pandemic Altered Viewing Habits?

Key Takeaways

  • 34% of sports fans feel it’s highly important to watch a sports game live. NFL fans (37%) are more likely than others to feel this way.
  • Two-fifths of sports fans use illegal streaming websites to follow their favorite teams. NBA and NFL fans were more likely than other fans to do so.
  • Nearly one-third of respondents prefer to watch sports highlights instead of full games. Gen Zers (46%) were the most likely generation to feel this way. 
  • On average, respondents spend an extra $90 a month for additional subscriptions to watch sports.

Let’s Watch Some Sports

There's no denying the landscape of American sports was upended in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most leagues adapted to their new realities and found a way to play through the pandemic-affected seasons, the end result was a far cry from the games both players and fans were used to.

With in-person viewing either canceled completely or severely interrupted, media viewership has been more important than ever for fans to tune in on game day. In addition to network broadcasts, people turned to streaming platforms, YouTube videos, podcasts, and social media to stay connected to their teams at a time when tailgating and house parties may not have been an option.

As many leagues begin preparing for the 2021 seasons, we wanted to understand the long-term impact of COVID-19 on how fans watch sports. Read on as we explore how many teams the average person follows; the most popular solutions for game day viewing outside of network broadcasts; which digital streaming platforms are the most popular; and how much money people are spending to keep up with the wide world of sports. 

Tuned Into Sports Programing

Despite taking a slight dip between 2019 and 2020, sports viewership is expected to rise to over 160 million Americans by 2024. Not only are the number of female fans growing in professional sports, creating an emerging market worth big bucks, but viewership of women’s sports is also on the rise, exposing sports fans to new teams and leagues. Among the 1,020 sports fans surveyed, we found viewers followed three teams closely, on average.

While more than a third of sports fans (34%) indicated it was extremely important to watch their games live, we found NFL fans were more passionate about watching games live (37%) than other fans. And although 12% of fans said they wanted to watch sports live every day, it was more common among them to watch live games once a week (25%) or once every few months (18%). Another 34% of sports fans said they never watched games live.

Where Sports Fans Watch

Turning on the TV and flipping to the game might seem like the most straightforward solution for catching a live game, but that may not always be an option. If you’re not looking for a broadcast of the home team, you might find locating your team of choice more challenging than not. And if you’re a cable-cutter, network broadcasts are off the table altogether. Outside of cable, we found the most popular solutions for watching sports included streaming services (76%), visiting a family or friend (50%), or illegal streaming websites (40%).

Sports streaming has become such a popular revenue source that Amazon recently inked a deal with the NFL for the rights to "Thursday Night Football" to the tune of $1 billion a year. Tuning in on TV (81%) might still be the most popular place to watch sports, but the rising popularity of streaming makes other options available, too. More than half of people reported watching sports on their laptops (52%), followed by phones (37%), desktop computers (36%), and tablets (26%).

The ability to stream live sports is great, but it’s worth noting that subscriptions can be pricey. While a quarter of fans said they never used illegal streaming websites to watch sports, the most popular leagues to tune into illegally were the NBA and the NFL (24% each).

Game Day Viewing Options 

Among the 1,020 sports fans surveyed, 86% reported using some form of streaming service in order to watch sports. And what accounts for the rising popularity? Sixty-one percent of fans said it was the price of streaming over a cable subscription, followed by the number of sports channels available (55%), the availability of sports add-ons and subscriptions (48%), and having more variety of channels showing their preferred league (25%).

By far, the most popular streaming services used to watch sports included ESPN+ (50%), YouTube TV (45%), LiveTV (36%), Hulu (33%), and Stream Sports (25%). ESPN+ was the most popular streaming platform for the NFL (53%), NBA (60%), and MLB (50%). Following YouTube TV, Hulu was more popular with NFL fans (35%) and MLB (35%), compared to the NBA.

For some fans, a preference for streaming may be a result of opting for highlights rather than trying to watch a full game. Thirty-one percent of fans said they preferred to watch highlights over full games, a preference that was highest among MLS fans (37%) and lowest among NFL fans (22%).

Don’t have three hours to watch the entire game? YouTube (58%) and ESPN (38%) were the most popular places to find sports highlights online. 

Moving to Digital Platforms

Once upon a time, the idea of “cutting the cord” and being able to unsubscribe from cable altogether in favor of streaming services was probably easier said than done. Today, with so many options for streaming platforms and streaming-exclusive content, more people than ever have ditched cable completely. Compared to just 24% of people in 2015, 44% of Americans in 2021 don’t have access to either cable or satellite TV.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 71% of fans reported watching cable at home, reduced to 66% during the pandemic and just 49% at the time of our survey in May 2021. Moreover, 74% of sports fans reported plans to cut cable at some point in the next five months, nearly a third of whom were planning to do so in just three months or less.

Whether because the cost of cable had gotten too high (53%), because live games had lost their allure (49%), or for political reasons (42%), fans of the following leagues were the most likely to be cutting the cable in the next five months: 

  • MLB: 76%
  • NBA: 69%
  • NFL: 66%

More Reasons to Cut the Cable

On average, sports fans reported watching 10.5 hours of sports content each week and spending $85 a month on streaming services. 

Compared to those who’d cut cable, sports fans paying for cable reported spending $123, on average, $38 more than those getting their sports entertainment from streaming. Perhaps even more important, those surveyed reported spending an extra $90, on average, for additional subscriptions to watch sports, including NFL Game Pass (38%), NBA League Pass (35%), and MLB.TV (27%).

The Digital Sports Experience

Despite all of the roadblocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, sports fans aren’t to be underestimated. The total number of sports fans is expected to rise to more than 160 million by 2024, and the average fan reported following three teams. In a world where digital engagement is crucial, streaming services have become a viewing platform of choice with many sports fans planning to cut the cable altogether in the coming months.

No matter which teams you’re passionate about, Lines.com has all of the updates you’re looking for under one roof. From NFL and NBA to NHL, NCAA, and MLB, we have the best betting guides, draft stats, and headline news on your favorite teams. Get ready for the new season by visiting us online at Lines.com today. 

Methodology and Limitations

This survey was made up of 1,020 self-reported sports fans. 60% of respondents were men, and 40% were women. Participant ages ranged from 18 to 75 with an average age of 39 years old. Participants were sourced using the Amazon Mechanical Turk survey platform and were asked a series of questions, including attention-check questions to assure they were answering truthfully. Those who failed the attention-check questions or did not answer the survey completely were disqualified. Please note there are some issues with self-reported surveys, including but not limited to telescoping, selective memory, and lying. 

For this study, we also used statistics from different sources to explore live sports viewership in the U.S. from 2019 to 2024 and the watching frequency of live sports on TV in the U.S. in 2021. We used the following sources in our study:

Fair Use Statement

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Photo: Getty Images