2020 was a year of massive shocks to what was an evolving sports landscape. The economic shock was a brutal short-term blow that will have long-term ramifications. The flourishing social justice movements accelerated a shift away from legacy segments of consumers. And in the background, we have a continuing technology revolution that is changing how sports are consumed and the very nature of fandom.
Sports are part of the culture, and the culture is evolving in dramatic ways. And the evolution of culture is now very much tied to politics. The likelihood that you love the Sarah Fuller story or applaud the social justice messages on the backs of jerseys is related to political philosophy and how you vote. To deny the politicization and polarization of the culture is foolish.
With that said, as 2021 begins, it is an apt time to consider how the major US leagues will fare in the new environment. In order of their respective championships, some quick thoughts on the direction of each league.
College Basketball: Trending Down
College basketball had already lost its glitz from a previous era when stars played 3 or 4 years before moving to the NBA. The college game was also under fire from a burgeoning trend for 5-star recruits to choose the G League or play overseas. Next on the horizon is potential changes to Name, Image, and Likeness regulations that may disrupt competitive balance levels. And in this time of transition, the game will miss one brand building tournament and play another with few or no fans.
NBA: Trending Up
The NBA suffered a ratings disaster in 2020, and the regular-season games in empty arenas seem amiss. So why the trending up? There is no league better positioned for where the world seems to be evolving. NBA players are international social media stars that have the glamour of music and movie superstars. The NBA also has a fanbase that already looks like the US's coming demographics and a major international presence in markets like China. It’s not going to be easy as the NBA is probably the league caught in the most political turmoil but the future looks bright.
NHL: Trend Down
The NHL’s ratings were just as bad as the NBA’s. The problem for the NHL is that it is not built for the new sports ecosystem. It is a league where fandom tends to be local, and star players are unknown to non-fans. It is also a game that generates massive in-arena excitement and considerable enthusiasm in sports bars. Until these channels come fully back online, the NHL’s prospects are trending down.
MLB: Trending Up
This one might surprise. MLB suffers from some of the same issues as the NHL, such as a local fan base and limited social media stardom. But MLB is largely an out-door game, and MLB has significant strengths in the traditional family-oriented fandom. MLB may have the first large-scale events to return to normal. It is hard to bet against the league that has the most kids at their games in terms of fandom.
MLS: Trending Down
MLS was making significant inroads, and in some markets, they had become the 4th major professional sport. However, so much of the growth of the game was based on local factors. In Atlanta, you might have seen more United jerseys than any other pro team’s over the last couple of years. The problem is that the pandemic made it impossible for people to see the jerseys. COVID19 was devastating to the word-of-mouth like marketing on which a smaller league thrives.
College Football: Steady
Now we come to the juggernauts. College football faces a few threats. There has been less interest from students for years, and the college football playoff seems to have become a closed club. But, college football still has a “can’t miss it” event status and a built-in fanbase of alumni. And unlike college basketball, there are no competitors on the horizon to siphon off talent.
The NFL has taken some hits and is probably the second most politicized league, after the NBA. However, it is still the dominant force is sports with an almost year-round schedule of events (combine, draft, etc.), a massively popular feeder league in college football, significant tie-ins to gambling and fantasy sports, and a massive media machine.
Listen to our discussion regarding these leagues' futures in this podcast: