Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
If you’ve ever wondered what determines which NFL games are shown in your region each Sunday, the answer—one day—might be your tweets. And your Facebook posts. And even maybe your shopping history.
Creating their weekly market-to-market broadcast plans, FOX and CBS rely on past TV ratings, local affiliate insight, and a dose of instinct. They also abide by various geographic rules that aren’t worth detailing, but in so-called “jump ball territories” where they have more flexibility, fan data could help make the call. The league is now working with a third-party data analytics and modeling firm to understand how social media activity or NFL shopping trends might predict local interest for various matchups.
“Over the last couple of years that’s been a really heightened area of focus for us,” NFL Media COO Hans Schroeder said, “putting the right game in what market.”
In Week 1, CBS viewers around Laramie, Wy., will get to see former Wyoming QB Josh Allen’s Bills take on the Jets. Meanwhile Baker Mayfield and the Browns’ game against Tennessee will air throughout most of Oklahoma plus around his hometown of Austin, Tex. Of course, you don’t need artificial intelligence to make those connections. Numbers could help split hairs though—where exactly are the Chiefs Kingdom’s borders, for instance. For now, most of the quirks on NFL broadcast maps come from local affiliate requests (this week Rams-Panthers is broadcast to a Baton Rouge island surrounded by Falcons-Vikings on FOX).
Even if networks pick the perfect matchup for each station, they can’t guarantee a good game, of course. In the hopes of keeping fans watching longer, the league has made it easier for CBS and FOX to show additional games, either switching out of a blowout in the second half or joining a close finish after the original broadcast ends.
Restrictions apply in both scenarios to make Sunday Ticket more attractive and to juice viewership for the beginning of the next set of NFL action. But in an effort to please—and thus retain—viewers, the NFL is loosening its philosophy. “There’s no question” more flexibility will improve ratings, FOX’s executive vice president for research Mike Mulvihill said. “It just creates a more fan-friendly product.” Hopefully it will also reduce the frequency of game endings being preempted by host apologia.
The NFL will also offer more football, easing a blackout rule that applies when a local team plays at home. For example, a market like Cleveland sometimes only gets two games on Sunday afternoon, the Browns at 1 p.m. and another game at 4:25 p.m. That’ll happen less this year; Sunday, FOX will show Cleveland viewers Redskins-Eagles opposite the Browns game after not showing a game in that situation a year ago.
If more games, smart matchups, and some reactive flexibility keeps fans engaged on Sunday, it could be enough to bring about another strong ratings year for the NFL. It could also prove how behind-the-scenes decisions and unforeseen factors affect the numbers that have become a topic of frequent debate. Last year’s rebound came not from drawing new viewers but keeping each one for longer on average.
With social media grabbing so much time from traditional entertainment sources, it would sure be something if data collected from those various diversions eventually held the key for the NFL to maintain its control.
NFL Comes to TikTok Seeking Younger, International Fans
Speaking of social media...
With a video featuring Jameis Winston “Eating a W,” the NFL officially joined one of the fastest growing platforms this week and has so far drawn 300,000 followers. It also pushed a #WeReady Challenge to kick off the season. TikTok amplified the campaign by putting it on top of its discover tab.
“It’s a platform with massive scale, particularly internationally,” NFL VP for digital media business development Blake Stuchin said, specifically citing large user bases in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico and the U.K., where the league is focusing its growth efforts. China, the app’s home market, is also one of the NFL’s most important target territories.
Stuchin said the account will feature some highlights, but content will be uniquely packaged for TikTok. So far, the highest performing clip recounts Marquise Goodwin’s inspirational 2017 touchdown, with nearly 11 million views.
TikTok has exploded partly thanks to state-of-the-art user behavior data and a corresponding targeting AI. “We certainly will in working with TikTok expect to learn quite a bit about NFL fans,” Stuchin said. The league will also experiment with branded campaigns and other monetization on the app.
● CNN's Kerry Flynn takes a look at Amazon’s investment in YES Network.
● For your listening pleasure, conversations with Paul Finebaum and Al Michaels.
● Kendall Coyne Schofield will join the San Jose Sharks’ broadcast team for select games this season.
● Katie Nolan will reportedly debut her show at 12:30 a.m. on ESPN2 later this month.
● The Athletic's Matt Fortuna was on hand for the ACC’s Networks first football game telecast.
● FOX Bet has launched in New Jersey.
● As it courts mainstream viewers (and advertisers), the Overwatch League is touting its Nielsen viewership metrics. During this season, the Esport has averaged 313,000 viewers, up 18% from last year.
● The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach delivers an in-depth profile on Laura Rutledge ahead of the ESPN personality’s maternity leave.