- Can the NFL keep up with the frenetic way we now "watch" its sport?
A version of this story appears in the Dec. 5, 2016 edition of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Stafford. Complete to Boldin. To the endzooonnneee, Touchdown! Anquan Boldin!
Carl Winfrey, a 27-year-old photographer from Richmond, Va., grabs his phone in search of a fantasy update.
Great protection for Matt Ryan…Looking down the field…To the endzone… And it. Is. A. Touchdown!!! Taylor Gabriel.
On his bye week, Giants tackle Marshall Newhouse pulls down on his Twitter feed again.
Play action. They flip it to Murray. Murray leaps! Touchdownnn!
RedZone’s whip-around host Scott Hanson narrates the play, bounces to a pick-six and then pivots to simultaneous fourth down attempts in a double box. Millions of fans follow along, assuming a new Snap or iMessage hasn’t taken precedence.
So here we are—Are you still with us?—in the Age of Inattention.
Traditional NFL TV ratings have dropped as time-spent-watching-per-viewer decreases. The league has lost heavy viewers across every major age demographic, from 4% to 18%, according to a TiVo study of more than two million homes. In November, even with ratings starting to rebound, NFL executives publicly recognize today's reality. Football has gone from dominating a day of the week to competing for fans on a per-second basis. And now that our average attention span has fallen below that of a goldfish (yes, really, according to a study from Microsoft), the NFL is at risk of becoming a fish out of water in the digital era. After all, how can a three-hour game with 11 minutes of action compete with a Facebook feed individually tailored for maximum engagement? What can be done about a broadcast stuffed with 70 commercials when Netflix has none?
The league and its partners have spent years trying to answer these questions. In 2014, DirecTV quizzed students around the country before launching a digital Sunday Ticket product aimed at younger viewers. EA Sports, makers of Madden, meanwhile, commissioned ethnographic studies of young adult gamers. Out of that research came a quick-play mobile game and a shareable GIF generator. The NFL has done more than its share of market research, too, initiating first and third-party surveys, taking the pulse of fans at town hall events, analyzing projects conducted by its corporate partners, and tracking engagement across a number of platforms.
But understanding the modern football fan does not require elaborate studies or reams of data. From the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters, all it takes is a short trip on the L train, a brief walk down Brooklyn's Grand St. and a request for Shawn Mulholland at the sports bar that bears his name. As the 38-year-old Brooklynite talks about how much things have changed, two Eagles fans casually take in the Philadelphia-Washington game playing over his shoulder. Both are wearing headphones.
Mulholland does a quick scan of the room and is dismayed at the number of heads buried in glowing rectangles. Then he pulls out his own device to show a clip from his personal Instagram story. “Look,” he says as the video shows the bar in the midst of a college football Saturday. “On her phone, on her phone, on their phones.” With his cracked iPhone still on the table, Mulholland moves from Instagram to YouTube to provide a glimpse into the past. In the clip he loads, Mario Chalmers pulls up for a game-tying three in the 2008 NCAA Tournament final on one of the bar’s TVs before the camera pans the crowd. Pandemonium only begins to describe the scene. Mulholland interrupts. “See that guy, jumping on the bar? He ended up crowd surfing, literally, from there, all the way to the front of the bar and out the door.” The video ends. “That sh** just doesn’t happen as much.”
Even closer to the shadow of 345 Park, Manhattan resident Kel Huang has more video proof of how times have changed. For years, he and a steady rotation of friends would reliably be on his couch at 12:59 pm each Sunday to watch the RedZone Channel’s clock count down to 00:00. Usually, they’d be there seven hours later. A short video still exists of the gang taking in an all-time "Triple Box" in 2012, featuring a missed field goal and two touchdowns in the span of mere seconds. Giddy laughter provides background for Hanson's increasingly excited call. After Huang put the clip on YouTube, “NFL Redzone Triple Box Shenanigans” ended up getting over 20,000 views. But, Huang says, “I have no idea what RedZone is like nowadays." He doesn’t subscribe to the channel anymore—and he’s far from alone.
One analysis found NFL RedZone viewership is down 3.5% among millennials this year, consistent with drops among traditional broadcasts. For Huang, the novelty of seven hours of nonstop action has been replaced by a bevy of apps offering an even longer stretch of uninterrupted content. But he still considers himself a football fan. He and his buddies still play fantasy. “Now, it’s just—probably like with most people—using my phone to stay up to date,” Huang says. So when Hanson announces a Josh Huff return touchdown for the Eagles in late October, Huang is climbing Bear Mountain along the Hudson River. If he does feel like taking in a whole game, he leans toward the NBA, as do most of his peers these days. “There’s just more stuff happening during a game,” Huang says. So there you have it. After dominating the TV era, the NFL must earn its place in a new landscape.
Football is TV. Not just in the sense that a typical game is six percent action surrounded by time spent maintaining plotlines, but also as in: TV is football. The NFL accounted for 46 of the top 50 broadcasts last fall, for instance. In 2014, roughly 70 percent of TV owners watched some amount of football. Over any 12-month period, FOX viewers consume more minutes of NFL football than the rest of the network's entire non-sports prime-time lineup. Understanding the upcoming challenges for both sides requires recognizing how interchangeable football and television have been over the last 60 years.
It was actually the AFL, not the NFL, that first wholly embraced TV at the league level in 1960, signing a five-year, $9 million deal with ABC. Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL responded soon after with a CBS contract that paid nearly $5 million annually, and since the AFL-NFL official merger in 1970, football and television have steadily grown in tandem. In 1977, Inside the NFL bolstered a nascent Home Box Office channel. NFL GameDay gave a young ESPN stature through the 1980s. A full slate of NFC games helped FOX sit at the big boy table in 1993. And since launching in '94, DirecTV has marketed itself as the only home of NFL Sunday Ticket for its entire lifetime.
At every step, the league has conquered the same threats it must handle today—maintaining audience attention and preventing technological disruption—even going back to the famous 1958 title game that put football on the map. As the Colts and Giants battled in an overtime thriller, then-President Dwight Eisenhower, vacationing on his Pennsylvania farm, divided his attention between the action and a fierce bridge game against the president of Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, in New York, fans got around the local blackout of the game by angling their antennas just so to pick up the Philadelphia telecast. Until now, those challenges have hardly slowed the NFL’s ascent which explains why the league showed its preference for continuing the traditional model of selling rights to outlets with massive audiences most recently in giving Twitter the right to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games this season. Both sides say that the experiment has been yet another successful expansion for both football and broadcasting. In fact, fans have clamored for more similarly simple digital access to live games. But as much as the NFL might like to satisfy that demand, an amalgam of aging partnership agreements has instead left the league with a dizzying array of restrictions.
Local games, which are still offered on CBS and Fox, can now be streamed on those networks’ apps—except on mobile. Every Thursday night game is available on the NFL Mobile app on Verizon customers’ phones. Others can watch elsewhere, assuming they have the right combination of equipment, cable provider and patience. Out-of-market games can be streamed via DirecTV’s online Sundayticket.TV product, but only if customers “live in select apartment buildings, attend one of 10 select universities, or live in select areas.” And on it goes.
“The NFL is really soaring high on having an offer people want, but the risk is actually delivery,” says Jason Dorsey, who consults the biggest companies in the world on how to connect with millennials as the lead researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics. “It’s Blockbuster Vs. Netflix. The idea of forcing me to go somewhere to engage with something—that’s not natural anymore." And even for those who do navigate the maze of restrictions, what awaits is at best a presentation optimized for a 50" screen rather than one 1/10 that size—and at worst? A deluge of buffering, freezing, and crashing combined with serious battery drainage.
The NFL seemed to be attempting to draw fans back to their TVs—and preserve their monetized content—in October when it implemented fines for teams tweeting video highlights on game day (unless the clips originated from the @NFL account). Outrage came fast, even from the Browns’ and Eagles’ official accounts, which mockingly tweeted out GIFs of figurines acting out plays.
In Oakland, Raiders social media manager Tyler Moorehead still hears from hundreds of fans each week who want more material. Fans in New Orleans, meanwhile, got to see how differently their NBA and NFL franchises treated the platform—the first as a marketing tool and the second as a distribution channel—even though @PelicansNBA and @Saints are run by the same guy, Alex Restrepo. During an October league meeting, a representative of a lower-performing team complained that the rules meant that their fans would see many fewer highlights compared to fans of a top team. Maybe your team should make more plays, came the response.
Many fans get more enjoyment from the social aspects of football fandom—trash-talking with friends, sharing sideline memes—than actually watching the source, says Justin Cox, the director of strategy at a company called Heat, which has helped EA and other corporations appeal to millennials. “That is a [challenge] for every movie company, every musician—anyone who creates content.” As Ken Early, a columnist for The Irish Times, put it in a story about similar ratings declines in the English Premier League, “We have to confront the possibility that people like everything about football except watching it.”
To the NFL’s chagrin, following without watching becomes ever more enticing with each new service offering to fill a Sunday afternoon. “You have a seemingly infinite number of choices now, so the tolerance for watching something that’s not all that exciting has fallen dramatically. If there is a great game, you’ll watch. But otherwise it’s really easy to turn on Netflix or start an episode on Amazon,” BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield says. “The NFL has got to figure out how to get more exciting matchups that maintain excitement for the entire three hours or plan that this is the new reality.”
Media and technology insiders gathered in early November at the Javits Center in New York City to receive wisdom about how to handle “the new reality” from an executive for one of the largest entities in American entertainment. And though Brian Rolapp, the executive vice president of media for the NFL, appeared calm, sitting one-leg-over-the-other on an ivory couch, in a black suit and pink tie, he did little to assuage the audience’s concerns. He said that his organization’s success could evaporate if it didn’t keep up with audience demands. He admitted that he’s not sure TV ratings will bounce back this season. Asked what keeps him up at night, he said, “How much time do you have?” And offered these words of wisdom: “Only the paranoid survive.”
But Rolapp never wavered from his confident tone. “We are not overly worried,” he said, even as he explained that the league was looking into changing core elements of its game and presentation, including, as he put it, “sacred cows.” He said, “Could [games] be shorter? Can we do replays differently? Is there a better way to do commercials?” (In essence, these were rhetorical questions and he was saying, Yes, hang tight.) Since Rolapp took his post in 2014, members of the NFL’s media, marketing and digital teams have grown used to hearing the Harvard Business School grad ask fundamental questions, eliminating preconceived notions, considering every idea on its merits.
When he took over, the league was at risk of missing out on social media platforms. “Take how we approached going to Twitter,” Cowboys executive vice president Jerry Jones Jr. says. “Two years behind the NBA. We should have been first.” By the end of Rolapp’s first year, the NFL partnered with Facebook. Weeks later, it teamed up with YouTube—”Finally” in the words of The Wall Street Journal. The following year saw the launch of a split-revenue Snapchat deal and an agreement with Twitter in advance of the service’s Moments feature.
In many ways, the NFL has now surpassed the competition in terms of monetizing and utilizing social platforms, particularly on Snapchat. In January 2015, one NFL team exec told Fortune, “Prior to Brian, they had ex-TV guys who had no idea what the Internet was, who would laugh at it. Brian understood what the power of the Web would be moving forward. And when Brian came in house the commissioner became much more comfortable doing things on the digital side because he knew he had a guy [who understood the landscape].” Goodell and other decision makers also feel emboldened to experiment with new media because they have confidence in their sport's fundamental attractiveness.
Even as the league slowly transitions towards the digital future, over half of all Americans will watch a game this season. Its Game Pass is still more popular than the other leagues' equivalent offerings, even though those, unlike the NFL's, offer live streaming domestically. Disruption, either in the form of another sport or a rogue distribution platform, is considered a distant threat at best.
But that does not mean the league is sitting still. Behind closed doors, its digital teams have explored various what-if scenario for years. What if there were no rights restrictions? What if mobile bandwidth wasn’t an issue? What about virtual reality and voice services? However, the NFL’s full next step likely won’t be clear until 2022, when a collection of its rights deals is set to expire. That’s when we could see a partnership with a digital platform like Amazon or Netflix that would revolutionize the gameday viewing experience. Maybe there will be an Instagram lookalike that presents a feed of professional photos and highlights from around the league in real-time, alongside links to all of the live action. Maybe there will be a personalized RedZone broadcast tailored to your daily fantasy team. Maybe it will be available on your fantasy matchup page. Maybe, suggests Tal Shachar, a media investor at The Chernin Group, the actual feed of NFL games will become commoditized such that Barstool Sports, Katie Nolan, Peter King, and SB Nation could each host unique streams of the same game while their fans interacted with each other—and the action—in new ways. As fun as it is to theorize, nobody ultimately knows what the landscape will look like.
In the meantime, millions of fans will keep soaking up the sport in incrementally more ways each Sunday. They will fill bars like Mulholland’s to be surrounded by screens, or they will set up a sports bar of their own in the comfort of home. Maybe they’ll add a VR headset to their fancave. They will tune in, religiously, to Fox, CBS and RedZone, eager to root for the home team, trash talk their friends, and follow their fantasy matchup. But, at the same time, another gameday tradition looms. Among an increasingly overserved and underattentive generation, watching a three-hour game has become arduous. Snapchat constantly beckons. A Netflix queue awaits. And a web of apps keeps fans connected without being tethered to a TV set. Some have supplemented their at-home experience with an array of distractions. Others have tuned out completely. Touchdown! Now what?