Americans watching sports less? The behavioral explanations why.

Richard Mathera
4 min readNov 20, 2020

Sports viewership is down, and people just can’t seem to figure out why. Theories abound. Social justice protests are a frequent scapegoat. Others suggest there are just too many viewing options now, sports are too boring, or people’s tastes have changed.

However, there are clear behavioral explanations for why sports viewership is down that have been largely neglected. We’ve got to start by thinking about not why people watch sports, but how. In behavioral science, we think about how the environment influences our behavior, and the sports viewing environment has changed dramatically over the last 30 years.

Image: Getty Images

Before streaming, we satisficed

Take a moment to think about how you might’ve watched your favorite show in the 90s, before internet streaming and DVR. Network television (bunny ears) and cable were ubiquitous. If you had a favorite TV show, you had to be home when it was on to watch it. For example, ABC’s TGIF featured new episodes of family-friendly shows like Full House and Family Matters every Friday. You either flipped through channels or referenced a TV Guide to figure out what’s on or when to catch that Friends re-run.

Shows were not on-demand. That means that at any given moment odds were that your favorite show was NOT on. What might be on? Sports.

How someone might watch sports in the 90s: while reading a newspaper, doing a crossword puzzle, doing laundry, making a meal, loosely supervising kids, etc. Sure, diehard fans might be locked into every moment of a game. And big games commanded extra interest. But generally sports served as an easy-to-watch, non-offensive, enjoyable and sometimes attention-grabbing (highlight-reel plays) second or third best viewing option. Because remember — your favorite show probably wasn’t on. In behavioral terms, in the 90’s we satisficed.

On-demand reduces satisficing

Fast forward to today. Think about how you watch your favorite show. Chances are pretty good that it’s streaming, or otherwise on demand, whenever you want.

Cable television subscriptions have been declining for years, declining 8% in 2019 alone. The behavior of idly flipping through channels and settling for something innocuous has been replaced by very intentional selection of what to watch, and often not just for 30 minutes. These days, once you’ve chosen a show, your next 8 hours of media consumption can be more or less set.

So now your favorite show is now on anytime, whenever you want. You don’t have to settle for a second or third option. And not only is any show you could want on right now, but all of a sudden in a relative sense sports have become less on demand. While shows are equally enjoyable on demand as when they are first released, sports are decidedly more fun live. And sports are not always live, but now shows can be watched any time.

It’s harder to multitask without cable

Now we seemingly do everything electronically. And without cable, we need to sacrifice one of our precious devices to put on a game. So our ability to multitask while watching sports has been reduced without cable, and we’re less able to watch sports the way we have often enjoyed them — passively and distractedly.

We’ve added even more friction & cost to watching sports

Additionally, if you want to watch sports and you don’t have cable, there’s even more friction. Small amounts of friction can change our likelihood of doing anything, and the amount of friction required to watch sports without cable has become significant. There is now a dizzying array of separate, paid subscription streaming services that you need to watch different sports without cable. And different games of the same sport are often shown on competing platforms. There’s ESPN+ ($5.99/mo), Peacock Premium ($5/mo), CBS All Access ($5.99/mo), Hulu ($5.99/mo), and more.

So instead of viewing sports via a quick channel change, we’ve got to 1) find the game we want; 2) hope that we have that streaming service, otherwise 3) navigate online setup and payment; 4) choose to pay for (another) streaming service; 5) pay a monthly subscription; and 6) potentially pay more attention to watch it. What kind of person is willing to do this? Someone who’s fairly interested in sports. Not the casual fan, the satisficer, or the parents just looking for an easy, mindless distraction while their kids eat crayons on their living room floor.

But we still watch sports

Watching sports has been transformed from an activity that was largely easy, timely, innocuous, and mindless to one that requires a strong preference over alternatives, more focus, navigating friction-filled services, and additional cost.

So when people wonder why sports viewership is down, an alternative question that’s equally legitimate is: how is sports viewership still so high? It’s a testament to how much we love sports that we’re willing to continue to watch them in spite of the behavioral hurdles that have developed in our way.

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