In non-Olympic years, there's no wider chasm of utter sports emptiness than late July and August. NBA and NHL free agency have pretty much wrapped up, and most NFL "news" involves players describing the best shape of their lives. Thankfully, football and European soccer are just about back, but for a very long stretch of summer, the only actual sports in season were regular season MLB, MLS, WNBA, one-and-a-half golf and tennis majors, exhibition soccer friendlies, and the Little League World Series. Unless you're a baseball-only kind of fan, that's dire.
On the TV side of things, broadcasters chomp at the bit for any scrap of entertainment pulp they can throw on the airwaves this time of year, and in an age where live sports and award shows are the only programs that can garner collective mass audiences anymore, somehow, in the near total absence of sports, this was able to happen on Twitter:
So why is there this gaping hole in the sports calendar, when a large part of sports revenue comes from TV, and a more or less equally huge portion of TV's immediacy comes from sports?
This got us to thinking: Would NHL or NBA playoff TV ratings increase if either pushed their calendar back and avoided directly competing with the other? Would World Series ratings cease their downward spiral if they moved up before getting caught in the NFL black hole? In an industry where teams hire armies of statisticians, coaches, trainers, and scouts to claw at every last inch of competitive edge and where leagues squeeze out every last drop of revenue, you would think someone would notice if that were the case—or does programming competition from other sports simply have little effect on ratings?
To answer this question, I crawled TV ratings data from Sports Media Watch, TV by the Numbers, and a number of other sources for over 500 MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL nationally broadcast games between 2011-2014 and ran a series of multilinear regressions to see if the simultaneous broadcast of another sport affected viewership.
In each regression, I controlled for a large number of variables: year, weekday, time, market size, playoff round, series game, series score, network, game leverage, number of Canadian teams, and if the lead-in was a World Cup match (yes, that really skewed some of ESPN's baseball ratings), using a stepwise regression to eliminate any variables that were insignificant.
The presence of another sport was significant in three of the models:
- NBA playoffs hurt NHL playoffs
- NHL playoffs hurt NBA playoffs
- NFL regular season hurt NBA regular season
Here's how this programming competition affected ratings:
The models were insignificant for the following:
- NFL regular season has no effect on NHL regular season
- NHL regular season has no effect on NFL regular season
- NFL regular season has no effect on MLB playoffs
- MLB playoffs have no effect on NFL regular season
- NBA regular season has no effect on NFL regular season
The numbers suggest that the NBA could reasonably consider moving its season back, so that its November and December regular season games don't clash with the NFL and also so that its playoffs don't overlap with the NHL. (This is complicated by the NBA's love for Christmas Day games, but people really seemed to like starting the season on Christmas during the lockout year.) The far bigger gain is for the NHL, though, which would increase its average playoff ratings by 44.4 percent for games that currently overlap with the NBA (basically every game other than the Finals) with a move away from April-June, possibly to the currently barren wasteland of July-August.
One major thing to note is that this analysis doesn't account for any ratings benefit a league would garner by securing a monopoly on July-August national media attention. In this hypothetical playoff scenario, the NHL would be the lead story every day for two months. This ignores that additional benefit and simply says how big a boost games would get in their current April-June slot with everything as it currently is but without an NBA game on at the same time. We also do not address the annual ratings decline that happens across the board in TV, but this is a chicken-and-egg kind of deal—do ratings drop because there's nothing good on, or is there nothing good on because ratings will always drop?
Another interesting finding is that while it may seem like the NFL's arrival crushes the MLB, the model showed no impact on the presence of football games during the MLB playoffs. (Some of this likely due to the fact that many Sunday LDS and World Series games benefit from the FOX NFL Sunday lead-in.) Similarly, no sport appears to have any effect on the NFL. Football ratings don't rise once baseball season ends, and they don't take a hit once the NHL and NBA start. The NFL is simply a semi hauling down the highway, with the NBA, NHL, and MLB merely flies smeared across its windshield.
While a ratings boost would certainly help the bottom line in any league, we can see that it would have a much greater effect in the NFL, though that will likely change when the NBA signs its new TV deals.
Hockey currently only occupies less than 3 percent of SportsCenter air time, but it's not hard to imagine a solid two-month July-August window of hockey supremacy in the in the national media spotlight, and the even higher ratings that would come with that undivided attention. Of course, the NHL's Canadian audience is roughly equal to America's, and the league certainly shouldn't make decisions solely to appease the audience south of the 49th parallel.
But still, in the four major sports, there are roughly six months of playoffs: NBA (2), NHL (2), NFL (1), MLB (1). It shouldn't be rocket science to prevent overlap and have playoffs on the calendar six months out of each year. That's something that would benefit owners, players, fans, and just about everyone but the producers of Sharknado 3.
Jim Pagels is regular contributor to Forbes and freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimpagels.