It is the most popular sport in the US. Its popularity extends beyond the borders of the US and counts millions of fans worldwide. It generates billions of dollars in revenue and has traditionally driven the strongest broadcast television ratings without exception. But the NFL has a problem. And this time, it isn’t concussions or improperly inflated game balls. Ratings are slipping. Viewers are shunning NFL broadcasts on television but analysts and experts can’t point to any one reason.
For the 2016 season, NFL ratings are down as much as 18 percent on CBS, and nationally Thursday Night Football is down 15%, Sunday Night Football 13%, and Monday Night Football 19%. Fox too has seen its ratings slip this season. That’s the equivalent of a helmet-to-helmet blow that generally ends in a concussion. Fumble, anyone?
Hypothesizing On the Hysteria
Absent an x-ray or MRI to properly analyze this ratings concussion, let’s dig into what is possible and where the audience is going. First - this is a year unlike most others in that we have an election cycle underway. These declines in viewing could be attributed to the 24-hour insane news cycle that is the 2016 Presidential Election. Something similar happened in 2000 when the election was viewed as a factor in NFL ratings decreases that season. But none of us were watching the NFL on anything but a television back then. Could there be too much NFL for its millions of fans? Seems we have NFL product to consume nearly all week, with the addition of Thursday Night Football a couple of years ago. Or could there be a bit of hero apathy as some of the marquee stars of recent years (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady) are missing from lineups, and many big NFL names have been injured early this season? Or perhaps viewers are turning away after news of other issues (concussions, national anthem protests) have given fans a reason not to tune in. These opinions are echoed as well in today’s Wall Street Journal.
Time will tell this year, and if the ratings swing upward in November through the remainder of the season following the general election, some of this concern could be mitigated. Still - that won’t change the larger shift in viewing behaviors away from traditional television toward devices and OTT products and services. What will change is how audiences are measured in the not too distant future. Counting the streaming audience alongside the television audience will be paramount going forward. How streams are measured in terms of time spent watching, what constitutes a view and counting viewers on devices are a much larger discussion for another day and another blog post. Should the ratings not move the needle north later this season, a delicate situation will develop between the league and its broadcast partners. These networks are paying the NFL billions of dollars with the expectation that massive audiences will tune in. When ratings numbers decline, so does the ad revenue these networks rely on to offset the acquisition costs for the games. At present, these agreements run through 2022 - but it doesn’t take a technologist or scientist to figure out that viewing patterns will be dramatically different then. Without a doubt, all parties have figured that streaming will take on a growing role in reaching audiences, but these trends may be developing and playing out faster than anyone expected.
Speaking of Streaming...
It should come as no secret that as a video technologist, I’ll hypothesize that a portion of the audience is shifting and are likely watching via other, ‘non-television’ screens. There are millions of viewers today who consume millions of hours of content on the screen in their pocket or their hands. This isn’t the only reason for the shift in NFL ratings and isn’t the heart of the matter, but is clearly one symptom within the diagnosis. Still - this also seems to amplify a trendline. NBC saw a decline in Olympic viewing this year at the Rio games, although streaming audience growth skyrocketed. And it is hard to imagine the NFL with its proverbial head in the sand, as the ‘experiment’ with Twitter and the Thursday Night Football product is a clear indicator that they are making efforts to connect with potential viewers not conditioned to watch on a traditional television set. This move is vital too - because while ratings are down, total reach for the NFL is up. They are growing their overall audience worldwide, despite the concern over ratings declines. And make no mistake, devices are playing a significant role in that.
So while we still have some work to do in terms of how we measure audience, we don’t face hurdles in how we reach viewers on non-television platforms. Just today, Brightcove announced support for direct publishing to Roku. It is this type of functionality that lowers hurdles for leagues like the NFL and broadcasters who carry their content so that they can easily connect with viewers, no matter where they want to connect. Three years ago, this type of task seemed massive and would take a team of engineers months to plan for and execute on. No longer. While we haven’t engineered a giant magnet to draw audience and increase ratings, we have figured out how to navigate and reach a multiscreen world for customers of all sizes.