Does the NFL Have a Long-Term Ratings Problem?

According to Nielsen, a media measurement company, NFL viewership on broadcast and cable networks (NBC, CBS, FOX, ESPN) is down 10% from last season.

A Wall Street Journal article on the subject said “the drop has caught advertisers and rights holders off guard and scrambling to find a cause.”

But should they really be that surprised?

Short-term, a dramatic Presidential election cycle has likely played a role in the drop. In fact, it was the cited reason by NFL media executives in a recent memo sent to all 32 teams:

“In 2000, during the campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, all four NFL broadcast partners suffered year-over-year declines,” according to the league. “Fox was down 4 percent, CBS was down 10 percent, ABC was down 7 percent and ESPN was down 11 percent.”

There have been 3 elections since the 2000 election, obviously, so I thought it was interesting that the memo didn’t take an average of the change in viewership in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

At any rate, the memo goes on to say:

“Prime-time windows have clearly been affected the most, while declines during the Sunday afternoon window are more modest. While our partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings, they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue.”

What factors, though, could cause a long-term ratings issue for the NFL’s network partners?

For one, it could be less interest in the sport from its core 18–34 males viewers. ESPN has seen a 24% decrease in viewership from that group this year. Long-term, this group could be moving to other forms of entertainment like, for example, e-gaming, which is growing by 20% or so each year.

A bigger factor, I believe, could be the growing popularity of NFL Redzone — which targets the viewing habits and football interests of the younger viewer. With Redzone, there’s 100% no commercials and almost no dead time between plays. Unless you’re watching your favorite team and don’t want to miss a minute of action, why wouldn’t you want to save 2 hours of commercial time with Redzone?

NFL doesn’t break out Redzone viewership numbers, but in 2015 analysts pegged it at 4 million households. For comparison, the average NFL broadcast on a major network reached about 15 million households in 2015.

That number for Redzone, though, is only going to increase. And as it does, I expect it will cut into network viewership.

(Search interest in “NFL Redzone” has increased steadily over the last 5 years)

Also, I believe that a lot of the league’s growth and interest among younger views is due to the increasing popularity of fantasy football. And the programming nature of Redzone caters to that interest.

While the NFL’s total audience should continue to grow as the league comes up with new ways to reach younger, cord-cutting viewers (like Redzone), it’s total network audience could decline because of that effort.

Does the NFL, as an entertainment entity, have a long-term ratings problem? Probably not. But does NBC, CBS, FOX, and ESPN have a long-term NFL ratings problem? Probably.

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