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Despite a recent rebound, NFL faces longer-term challenges

Two weeks remain in what has been a most unusual 2016 NFL regular season.

The campaign kicked off without two longtime signal-calling stalwarts: Peyton Manning who retired and Tom Brady who was suspended. The start of the season also was mired by a number of blowouts during early-season, prime-time match-ups.

Meanwhile, some claimed audiences were tuning out the NFL because of player protests during the national anthem and because younger fans' interest in fantasy results and highlights were coming at the expense of their watching most or all of full contests.

These developments and others, including streaming games through Twitter Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., were cited as reasons contributing to what became the NFL's top storyline this year: A significant decline in ratings.

The biggest factor cited by the league, network executives and some pundits, though, was the turbulence of the presidential election cycle and how it diverted attention away from the gridiron overall. Twice, the NFL went head-to-head with the debates between presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with the forums intercepting audiences for "Sunday Night Football" on Comcast Corp.'s NBC (US) and ESPN (US)'s "Monday Night Football" on Oct. 9 and Sept. 26, respectively.

Although many scoffed at the notion that the political intrigue was upending pigskin viewing, the NFL remained confident that ratings would rebound post-election and they have. Through the first 10 weeks of the season, NFL viewership was down 14%, but with subsequent upticks, owing in part to the rejuvenated Dallas Cowboys, the NFL audience has grown. It was off 10% through week 14.

"The prevailing wisdom was that the election had the biggest impact, with other factors falling around the margins," said Chris Bevilacqua, co-founder of sports and media advisory firm Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures. "That seems to have been the case."

Media historian and consultant Tim Brooks said the audience downturn shows that the NFL is "not impregnable," though he emphasized that the "NFL is not falling a cliff by any means."

Still, the declines came home to roost in the form of decreased NFL-related ad revenues for the networks in November, as fewer contests and the need to offer advertisers make-goods for audience deficiency units came into play.

Moreover, there now is a perceived vulnerability tied to concerns about saturation.

"The NFL just doesn't feel special any more with all the windows. There is 'Thursday Night Football,' and all of the college games on Saturdays. Then you have the Sunday afternoon games, followed by 'Sunday Night Football,'" said Marc Berman, TV analyst at programminginsider.com. "By the time 'Monday Night Football' kicks off on ESPN, more and more fans are not ready for football."

Highlights channel NFL RedZone (US) could be another force impacting NFL ratings.

"If you don't have [out-of-market package] Sunday Ticket [from AT&T Inc.'s DIRECTV] the next best thing is NFL RedZone. That's what I'm watching a lot," said Bill Carroll, senior vice president and director of content strategy at Katz Television Group, who noted the service offers a double bonus for fans because "it doesn't have commercials."

Commercials could also be a large part of the audience drop. Berman, like many others, believes NFL games are interrupted too often.

"Too many commercials, too many breaks," he said. "I know it's a business, but sometimes it's hard to watch."

Over the holiday weekend, the league is heeding that cry with networks set to run different types of ad allocations as a means to gauge how it impacts viewership and game flow.

Brooks, however, does not see fewer ads as a long-term solution for a business underpinned by multibillion-dollar-rights fees.

"When the goal is to try and make more money, it's just tough to see the networks holding back on inventory," he said. "Perhaps we will see more contextual ads going forward."

For his part, Lee Berke, president and CEO of consultancy LHB Sports Entertainment & Media Inc., thinks the league will modify its game plan and allow for more in-telecast enhancements in the vein of "dunk of the game" or "man of the match."

"There isn't going to be any reduction in rights fees, and the networks have to make the money back some way," said Berke, so the networks could charge a premium for such associations.

It may be difficult for the networks to pick up much more ratings ground as the campaign winds down: Week 16 features 12 contests competing against the hustle and bustle of Christmas Eve and a pair on Christmas itself, while the regular season concludes with all 16 games on New Year's Day.

Audiences for the playoffs, culminating with Super Bowl LI on 21st Century Fox Inc.'s FOX (US) on Feb. 5, should provide a better barometer on whether the NFL has lost some of its appeal.