What is all the talk about NFL ratings?
By Patty Roloff
The recent decline of ratings in the NFL has caused everyone to take a step back and look at what is causing it. Overall NFL was down about eight percent for the first six weeks of the season compared to last year and 16 percent versus 2015. This decline is consistent with a drop in overall linear TV ratings, as people are generally watching less TV. We’re also seeing a dip in ratings across other sports formats, including the MLB, NBA, and College Sports. The NFL is getting the most attention, not only because the decline in NFL ratings is greater than in other sports, but also because a few percentage points decrease in NFL ratings could equate to what other sports deliver in totality. Younger viewers (18-34) are making up the largest portion of the ratings decline, which is partially due to new video consumption patterns, as younger viewers tend to adopt new formats like OTT before older demographics. It’s difficult to assign blame for the declining ratings to any one particular reason, but there are a number of issues which may be impacting these numbers.
The player protests during the national anthem is one possible reason that has been pointed to as a reason for declining ratings. The protest has spurred controversy for the last two years, but peaked this year when the president turned to Twitter to criticize the NFL. The demonstrations started last season when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against minorities. This year dozens of other players, and sometimes entire teams, have joined in the protest. There is some speculation that America is turning off the NFL in protest, especially in light of social media movements like #boycottNFL. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint the ratings decline to these events. Despite the controversy, advertisers seem to be sticking with the NFL. According to the networks, advertisers are not pulling dollars out of their sponsorship or NFL content.
Some believe that the increased hours of football content available on TV and online is a reason ratings are down. Fox CEO James Murdoch said he believes ratings are down because there is an “over proliferation” of football. The NFL has been adding more and more viewing windows, with football games now on air four out of seven days a week. In addition to the increase in air time, the football game content itself is now available across multiple formats and platforms. Much of the ratings loss has come from the younger viewers, who turn to online methods to view content. NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said, “The younger viewers are getting satisfied by the alternatives of highlights and scores that are available during the game. That continues to train young viewers to follow our sports, not watch our sports. That is concerning for all sports television.”
Another issue potentially impacting ratings is the emergence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Since the release of studies that have demonstrated the prevalence of CTE in former football players, participation in both youth leagues and high school have decreased. To combat this issue, the NFL as well as youth organizations and state high school associations have started to crack down on certain types of aggressive hits, and training techniques to reduce the opportunity for head injuries. Still, this issue has caused a significant amount of damage to the NFL brand. It has given pause to parents about whether their kids should play football, and less participation might mean less engaged fan bases in the future. It has also potentially given people pause about whether they should enjoy watching the game at all.
There’s no one reason that for the decline in NFL ratings – and despite the decline, the NFL remains one of the highest rated programs on TV. In fact, Sunday Night Football has been TV’s top-rated program for the past four years. Additionally, we have also seen a bit of a ratings rebound over the past few weeks, although it’s yet to be seen if this will continue. With ratings still strong relative to other TV programming, the NFL continues to attract advertisers. But, the decline in ratings does have implications for advertisers to consider. If ratings continue to decline, will broadcasters continue to pay high rights fees? If not, will the cost of the NFL to advertisers go down? We have seen aggressive scatter pricing in the NFL, but networks still need to make enough money to pay the rights fees. As long as NFL advertisers support the NFL, we’re not likely to see dramatic decreases in pricing. We believe that the NFL still offers a large reach opportunity for advertisers, but the question will be how much we believe that reach is worth.