Sports equinoxes are good for fans, but they may be hurting the leagues themselves
There was a moment on Sunday afternoon, a bit after 1 p.m. on the East Coast, when nine NFL games were underway, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets tipped off Game 6 of their conference semifinal series, four Major League Baseball games with playoff implications had started, and the Dallas Wings faced the New York Liberty on the final day of the WNBA regular season.
Also: A Premier League game; an IndyCar race; pro softball and more soccer in Mexico and Spain.
Three hours later, an LPGA event had begun, the men’s U.S. Open final started and the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders faced off in the NHL Playoffs. Three more NFL games started then, too. A slate of MLS games was on the docket for that night.
Has there ever been a better time to watch sports than this past weekend?
Well, yes, any time not in the middle of a once-a-century pandemic that already claimed 194,000 American lives was a better time to watch sports. But within that context, we could have it a lot worse.
If, like so many people, you stayed home — either because that’s the right and safe thing to do or because climate change-fueled wildfires have cloaked much of the West Coast in smoke and ash — you had a dazzling array of sports options. It was like walking into a mall food court, except that every food option was of Michelin-star quality and somehow also really good for you.
It's rare for the four major sports leagues to all play on the same day, a so-called “sports equinox.” Thursday was just the 20th in history, and the first one not to take place in October or November. That day, for good measure, was compounded by action in the WNBA, the U.S. Open, college football, PGA and MLS.
Sunday was the 21st sports equinox. We’ll be getting a lot more sports equinoxes in the coming weeks, too. But if this pipe dream-caliber weekend was wonderful for sports fans, it wasn’t necessarily good for the sports themselves.
In the glut of games, the market for sports is devouring itself. There is so much on offer that nobody can possibly watch it all. This unprecedented collision of all the sports isn’t really good for any of those sports themselves.
The TV ratings for the NFL’s Thursday opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans were down a tad from recent years. But there are many good explanations for that — few, or none, of which have to do with politics.
Courtesy of the pandemic, people may be home and in front of their TVs more than usual this time of year, creating a bigger demand for live sports. But then those games are also up against one of the most contentious and anticipated presidential elections ever. TV ratings for the cable news channels are up massively, eating into a large chunk of all that extra time people are spending watching things.
For other sports, ratings have been a mixed bag during the pandemic. Baseball’s ratings were up by a lot initially, before sagging a bit. The NBA playoff ratings are down, but partly because a lot of games were moved to the daytime. Then again, the NHL playoffs ratings were trending up from last year.
There isn’t necessarily all that much overlap between the fanbases. The Venn Diagram of every American sports fan is not a circle. Yet lots of people follow more than one sport closely. That becomes harder when they’re all going on at the same time. And the thing is, the NFL, the swaggering juggernaut gobbling up so many of the viewers with its short season and outsized cultural footprint, hadn’t started yet when those ratings posted.
The return of the NFL has stepped on the NBA Playoffs, just as basketball’s restart blotted out baseball. Every time a bigger sport started up again as we slowly figured out how to play through a pandemic, it obscured the last one to start. Remember the KBO? And how excited we all were about Korean baseball for a while? Remember the monster ratings for the NWSL, tripling their record TV audience when it became the first stateside league to return?
There is only so much oxygen to go around, and sports are suffocating themselves. The result will, inevitably, be smaller audiences for everybody. Less attention. Another reason for some to affix these seasons with an asterisk (although you shouldn’t).
The sports calendar is carefully calibrated so that no major events that are in competition clash. This has been a territorial battle fought out over the course of decades, a kind of sporting Darwinism where those with the most appeal prevail and the others withdraw to some other date to make their own. In the end, every sport gets its moment in the sun.
The pandemic has ruined all of that, among lots of things. Nobody will get the full attention, or as much as they usually get.
There is no real alternative, other than to turn the calendar on its head entirely and perhaps spend the next few years slowly reverting back to the old schedule. But the pileup of events further diminishes every one of them, sanding off yet another coat of sheen during a dark time.
A sports equinox is when there is actually less daylight for everybody.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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