Pace of play issues remain front and center at NFL meetings in Phoenix.
Recently, in an email letter to fans, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league is looking to retire the referee's walk to go under the hood of a fixed camera for replays and instead turn to a tablet on field. The final centralized decision will be made at league headquarters in New York. Time clocks will also aim to accelerate the return to game action following out of bound plays and touchdowns.
The latter is one of a series of changes the league wants to institute that could impact the way most NFL fans consume games on television.
After a score, networks often go to commercials, a practice that is then repeated following the kickoff. The league found that to be the case after 27% of scores last season, with Goodell deeming the "double-ups" on commercials unattractive.
The NFL commissioner is also talking up plans to reduce the number of commercial pods and spots that air during telecasts. The moves are designed to increase pace of play, reduce dead time and ultimately make the game more enjoyable to those in stadiums and watching at home or public places.
In seasons past, NFL game telecasts featured five commercial breaks in the first, third and fourth quarters, and six in the second stanza. Goodell wants to cut the number of breaks to four in each of the quarters.
However, each break would see the addition of a 30-second spot, extending a pod to 2:20 from 1:50. Goodell said NFL research found that fans are more concerned with "more frequent breaks" than their length. As a bonus, it would give viewers more time to take care of whatever they need to between the elongated breaks.
Under that plan, NFL telecasts would reportedly allot a total of 37 minutes and 20 seconds for ads, down from 38 minutes and 30 seconds.
A decrease of a minute and 10 seconds of commercial time per game, on the surface, does not appear to be a large sacrifice for the networks. But over the course of the season, it's a very significant number, especially as the networks seek to offset the billions they are paying in rights fees over the course of their contracts and production costs.
One could argue that scarcity could drive unit pricing up, but given the lower ratings from 2016-17 season, that is hardly guaranteed. Last year, amidst concerns about increased interest in the historic election, NFL ratings dropped precipitously but rallied later in the season to finish down 8% overall. Ratings fell to an average of 16.5 million viewers overall from 17.9 million in 2015. There also was relative softness in the playoffs as well, suggesting the NFL has lost some of its appeal, though it continues to wear the crown as the top media property in all of TV.
But what perhaps is even more disturbing from the networks' perspective is the idea of cutting back on the number of promotions.
"It could be commercial related. It could be an advertisement for selling a jersey, it could be a promo for something that the network's running that week," Goodell said, calling the promos "like an intrusion on the game," during an interview on the March 23 edition of ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike."
The networks are in business with the NFL to garner as many eyeballs as possible that provide a halo effect for the rest of their lineups. For example, it would be a tough and expensive pill to swallow if CBS (US) could not frequently hail "60 Minutes," or FOX (US) was restricted from pointing to "The Simpsons" on Sunday nights, or NBC (US) had to tone down the trumpeting of the upcoming episode of "This is Us."
The league may have other viable options though, as it reportedly still has interest from such digital players as Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Twitter Inc. and Google Inc.'s YouTube for the rights to stream "Thursday Night Football" games next season, and long term, when the current TV deals expire early in the next decade.