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How the NFL Is Watched

Traditional broadcast ratings are falling as cord-cutters find new ways to watch the games, RedZone channel caters to fantasy addicts, and some turn off football altogether

While his teammates went through final warmups 2,000 miles away, Marshon Lattimore sat at home in New Orleans, nursing an ankle injury. With his left ankle propped up on pillows, the rookie flipped through channels looking for the nationally televised Week 12 game between his Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. His heart sank when he soon realized, with his DirecTV Now subscription—the non-satellite, over-the-top streaming version of DirecTV—he didn’t have access to local channels, including the CBS affiliate airing the game. He reached for a lifeline: Twitter.

“Who got a NFL Sunday Ticket login? Lol”

Immediately, dozens of Twitter followers replied, offering up their log-ins, or links to free (but illegal) game streams posted on Reddit. When it comes to his viewing habits, the 21-year-old Lattimore is representative of the millennial generation, cord-cutters who find ways to stream live games online, or mooch off someone else’s log-in. Considering the four-year, $15 million dollar contract he signed last spring, Lattimore could surely afford a subscription to DirectTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, the only (legal) way to watch every out-of-market game live. But, “It’s not worth it,” he says. “I’m still cheap.”

Lattimore’s dilemma (he ended up using his mom’s Sunday Ticket account) is one born of the current, complex and crowded television landscape. On-demand platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu are taking viewers away from traditional cable. That, combined with an influx of new ways to watch NFL games, are taking a chunk out of network viewership.

According to Nielsen, through Week 15 NFL ratings this season are down 8% from 2016, with an average of 15 million viewers each week compared with 16.3 million viewers at this time in 2016. When you take into account the ratings drop across all television programming, the numbers are less alarming—broadcast primetime television audiences for the four major networks are down 9% from 2016.

But NFL ratings also dropped 8% last season—this season is down more than 15% from 2015. It appears football might be falling in line with the downward trend of general TV viewing. “We’re all wondering, is the NFL no longer immune to what has hit other areas of the TV world?” says Austin Karp, assistant managing editor for SportsBusiness Daily. “This isn’t insignificant anymore. You’re talking about double-digit percentage declines. Those are pretty big dips.”

Karp, and fellow ratings expert Anthony Crupi, TV reporter for Advertising Age, both expected NFL ratings to swing back this season, thinking temporary issues—most notably massive interest in the presidential election during the first half of the 2016 season—played a large role in last year’s fall. Plus, traditionally popular teams like the New York Giants, Dallas, Green Bay and Oakland seemed poised for successful years. “The fact that the ratings haven’t bounced back is surprising,” Crupi says. “Take all the political stuff out and it feels like there are more long-lasting reasons at play. The 18-34 demographic is just completely disappearing from TV.”

Indeed, Lattimore and his millennial cohorts have moved away from old-fashioned channel surfing. A recent Nielsen audience report from the second quarter of 2017 had TV consumption among the 18-34 age group down 37.9% over the last five years.

The NFL has tested out new platforms in an attempt to adapt to changing viewing habits. For the last three seasons, the league has streamed games on Yahoo, Twitter and Amazon Prime, and recently signed a five-year deal with Verizon that will provide anyone free mobile and tablet streams of in-market games, the playoffs and the Super Bowl via the NFL Mobile app (FOX games are excluded from tablet streams). The league has played into fantasy football fandom and shorter attention spans with NFL RedZone, a commercial-free channel by NFL Network that offers a series of live look-ins on Sunday afternoons, showing scoring plays and red zone series.

NFL TV rights deals expire in 2022, and 2021 for ESPN, and though more and more viewers are foregoing cable to watch games on apps or stream them online, Crupi doesn’t think it’s likely that a platform like Facebook or Google will swoop in and take the place of a network. “The NFL wants to be on all platforms, but not at the expense of television,” he says. “They understand that there isn’t a delivery system that is comparable to TV. Streaming still isn’t scaling it. I don’t think for a second that the league would ever want to risk having the primary source of delivery be an unproven platform.”

There isn’t yet a universal, foolproof, legal, and (for many) affordable way to watch any and every NFL game. DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket costs $281 per season and only airs out-of-market games. A cable subscription will air regional and national games. RedZone channel shows only a handful of plays from each game. NFL Game Pass shows all games, including in condensed form, but not live. Free illegal streams posted online at sites like Reddit are the easiest way to watch any and every game, but the quality of the feed isn’t always reliable when a stream gets loaded with too many viewers. The Verizon mobile streams show local and primetimes games, but are locked into the phone screen without the ability to cast the game onto a larger device like an AppleTV.

Karp says the NFL needs to seriously address this gray area of cable-cutting, on-demand entertainment, new platforms and live sports consumption. Viewers are looking for one service that will allow them to watch any game they want without any exceptions. “Everyone is trying to figure out what is the best way to deliver the product, especially to a millenial age demographic,” he says. “If TV everywhere is the name of the game, the NFL needs to get to that place, where you have that sort of ability for a RedZone type channel, to take it with you wherever. You might see that change with the next TV deals.”

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Cord-cutting isn’t the only reason for the ratings slide. There’s the mediocre product on the field (average margin of victory in Sunday Night Football through week 15? 12.7 points); the unusually high number of injuries to star players this season; the general sense of football fatigue due to oversaturation; the divisiveness of player demonstrations during the national anthem; and the fact that RedZone might be ruining viewers’ appetites for three-hour games (though with only approximately 900,000 weekly viewers, the league isn’t concerned about that, yet). All of them have played a small role in this season’s decline.

The NFL remains the most-watched product on television, and though ratings are down, it hasn’t affected the league’s bottom line. Ad sales are up 3% from last season. And to the networks, live sports are more important than ever for attracting viewers. In 2016, every program rated in the top 50 was live sports, a live awards show, or one of the four presidential debates. Not a single entertainment program made the cut. “You can’t really operate anymore if you don’t have live sports,” says Crupi. ”Might as well put out a sign saying you are out of business.”

Some fans are finding unconventional ways to watch, some are watching much less football, and some have stopped watching the NFL altogether. Here’s a sampling of the people who are contributing to the NFL’s ratings decline:

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Anthony Panichelli, 25, Alexandria, Va., food service sales representative

I stream everything off Reddit because there’s no way to guarantee you’ll get to watch what you want, when you want. With a cable or satellite provider, it’s always some package of channels and stuff I don’t want to watch. I simply want to buy live sports. I’ve moved around a bunch for work and it’s just not worth dealing with blackouts and having to rush to a sports bar. I’ve lived in L.A. then San Francisco and now D.C., and I haven’t gotten actual cable in any of the places.

I’m from Philadelphia and I’m a Philly sports fan so I’ll watch the Eagles game every week, and then usually stream two other games at the same. Tom Brady is my favorite player and I’m a big Joey Bosa fan, so I’ll watch their games too. I love all sports, and I work from a home office, so I’ll usually stream up to three different games at a time using Reddit and Chromecast pretty much every day that I’m home.

Nobody I know pays for cable. We’re all transient. We all moved to big cities, back and forth. Everybody I know pays for something like Hulu, Netflix, HBOGo; it’s just not cable. There’s a lot of disposable income to be had, there’s just nobody that is organizing it. Everyone I know who lives on their own is doing a whole combination of s--- like I am. Reddit is my preferred way, just because they organize it so well. I used to do a lot more janky stuff back in the day, which was much worse. If I can’t find a game on Reddit I’ll search Twitter, but that is always a backup.

The NFL isn’t serving the market at all. I just want to watch the games that I watch. I don’t want to subsidize everybody else. And that’s sort of where we are at right now, it’s just this breaking point. I don’t need to watch general TV anymore, and that’s why live TV is the last thing the networks have, so there is just no organized way to watch live stuff. Everyone has a piece of the pie and it’s just not seamless yet. Honestly, let’s be real, all these old people that love the NFL, that love football, they just die, and then kids like me just don’t buy cable. It’s not a complicated thing.

I wish there was a way you could pay to get access to all the NFL games and highlights on your computer and stream them to your TVs without any exceptions. You could pay per game, in micropayments so you can log on and pay a few bucks to stream any game you want. In these times, people want to watch what they want, when they want and they already can by streaming online, so it’s up to the NFL to serve our needs.


Blaine Vriezelaar, 33, Carlsbad, Calif., health desk manager for an insurance company

I got rid of cable in February 2016. I was paying cable and internet bundled package for $175-220 a month. It just got ridiculous. My wife and I do really well, and we could buy cable if we really wanted to, it’s just the principle of it. We have five or ten channels that we really like, but in order to watch those, we have to buy the next tier cable package and you get all these stations that you don’t want to watch.

I’m a 49ers fan living in the L.A. TV market, so last season I bought an AppleTV and the SundayTicket online streaming package so that I could watch all the 49ers games. I also really like watching AFC teams like Pittsburgh and New England, because I feel like the competition is better.

This year, I really went back and forth about whether I should get Sunday Ticket again and ultimately, I decided not to because I like football but I don’t love football anymore. I am more of a baseball fan and I pay for MLB.TV for the summer. That’s $120 for the whole season, and then to pay another $100-something for the Ticket, I just didn’t want to fork out that kind of money. So I called my father-in-law during the second week of the season and I asked him for his cable log-in. I had borrowed a friend’s log-in the year before, until he eventually cut his cable this past spring.

With Sunday Ticket last year, I would watch regularly every Sunday because there was always an entertaining game. But this year, if the only games that I have available to me with my father-in-law’s log-in aren’t any good, then I don’t even watch football. I watch the 49ers only when they play a nationally televised game. Even though Garoppolo is 4-0 as a 49er, I haven’t changed my NFL viewing habits because the Niners still haven’t been on national TV, so I haven’t been able to watch them. I really want there to be an a la carte system for cable and if they really had that, I would go back to purchasing cable so I could pick what channels I actually wanted. Until then, I would rather put that money towards something else that we really like to do. My wife and I like to travel, so we put money aside to travel, we paid off her student loans this year, and we made renovations to our condo.

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Jose Armando Munguia, 39, Fresno, Calif., produce exporter

I stopped watching when Kaepernick opted out of his contract from the 49ers. When that relationship ended, it was evident that he wasn’t going to work anymore, so that’s when I bowed out. I stopped watching games or attending games, and purchasing any merchandise. I just took a very reflective look at my own life. I am Mexican-American, I’m a second generation American; with that personal background and upbringing, I have experienced some of what is happening to people of color, so not supporting Kaepernick was not an option for me. I think back in American history to Native Americans touring the east coast to bring awareness to their loss of land and dying tribes, and the many, many other movements of social change in this country. The progress has been slow. My passive act of protest is the least I can do to support Mr. Kaepernick. His sacrifice to spark a movement was career ending.

It was a hard decision for me to stop watching because I was raised a 49ers fans and a lot of bonding between my male friends revolves around football and that’s what brings us together as friends. I still read some articles about the NFL, it helps as my coping mechanism.

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On Sundays, I will usually just leave the house and go do something else so I am not tempted to watch. I am an outdoors guy, so I like to go to the woods and the mountains and hang out. I come from a big family and my nephews all play football. My family will get together and have parties to watch the games every week. They don’t even call me to invite me anymore.

I used to spend $500-1,000 on NFL merchandise each year as gifts for my family. Christmas and birthdays used to be easy—get the new hat or the new jersey. This year has been a little tricky. I’ve purchased a lot of fiction books, a lot of study guides on how to do well in high school, a couple of books on Cesar Chavez and history of activism. It’s been a little bit more out of the box.

If Kaepernick did get a job—which I don’t think he is going to—I wouldn’t come back to watch right away. I think it’s more about the league now. What is the league going to do to listen to its players and do something socially? Their ability to impact society and culture is a lot more than they are willing to admit. The $90 million deal to donate money to causes central to social injustices feels like they are throwing money at the problem, hoping that it goes away. I’m looking for a behavioral change from the NFL. I’m looking for NFL owners to discuss regularly about changing behavior and about changing the attitude. I think this is just rich, white guys throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away quietly.

I know I am in the minority. Even though viewership might be down, stadiums are still packed and tickets are selling like crazy online. None of this is going to hurt the bottom line of the NFL. I don’t think me sitting out or any viewer boycott really impacts the NFL.


Robert Joyce, 48, Westfield, Ind., IT manager

For Robert and Grant Joyce, NFL Sunday's are now almost all RedZone.

For Robert and Grant Joyce, NFL Sunday's are now almost all RedZone.

​I almost exclusively watch NFL RedZone now because that is what 15-year-old my son prefers. We moved to the Indianapolis area from North Carolina three years ago, and we subscribed to RedZone so that we could keep watching the Panthers. We never really considered the Sunday Ticket because my son, Grant, loves to see all the big plays.

At first I didn’t like it because the constant shifting between games gave me mental whiplash, but I adjusted after a season and now am addicted. It condenses all of the action. It’s commercial free, which is a big plus, and you get to see all the games. I had always watched full games before, but now I rarely do. The only time we will watch a full game is if the Panthers play a nationally televised game. Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football might be on in the background. We tend to tune in to RedZone at the 1 p.m. kickoff until those games wind down. My son loves the touchdown montage they do when they sign off; he makes it a point to watch that each week.

Our RedZone subscription is bundled into our cable package, so we had to step up from the package we originally had in order to get it, and now we pay for way too many channels that we don’t need. You can’t choose what you want. The cable companies basically dictate what the package contains. My son would much rather use an app that he can watch on his mobile devices than television. He doesn’t watch much television, he much prefers YouTube and apps and things that he can watch on his own terms. His generation doesn’t sit down to watch a game and even if they do, that’s not all they are doing. They are always multitasking, on social media or watching YouTube. They’ll play Madden and watch football at the same time a lot, two screens, multiple screens. It’s part of a broader experience.


Jim Colletti, 44, Latrobe, Pa., pilot for a shipping company

Watching Steelers football was once a family tradition, but Jim Colletti now spends his Sundays doing other things, like tossing the football with his son.

Watching Steelers football was once a family tradition, but Jim Colletti now spends his Sundays doing other things, like tossing the football with his son.

​I sat down to watch Week 3, Steelers vs. the Bears, and that was when the Steelers didn’t come out for the national anthem. As soon as I saw that, I turned off my TV. I had been getting disenfranchised with the NFL for a few years, because every year you have guys getting suspended for drugs, for domestic abuse, and I’m like O.K., do I really want to support this organization? When the Steelers didn’t come out for the anthem, even though they weren’t protesting, they were still complicit in it. It was the tipping point for me. That’s it. I don’t need this anymore. The anthem is important and sacred to a lot of people and it is highly disrespectful for anyone to protest during the anthem. I think there are more respectful ways to get a message across.

When I was in college in 1994 I put myself on the Steelers season ticket waiting list and I finally got tickets in 2016. I went to the games last season, but I felt like it was a money grab. It’s not cheap, it’s like taking a mini vacation every time you go to the game, so I decided not to renew my season tickets for another year.

I’m kind of sad because my best memories as a kid were watching Steelers games with my dad. My mom always used to make a big Sunday dinner, and if dinner interfered with the Steelers game, we actually had a spot at our dinner table where we put this black and white TV. Almost literally, the Steelers were part of my family. Every spring when the Steelers schedule would come out, I’d load it into my phone calendar and I would make it a point to either go to the game or watch the game. I don’t even know what the Steelers schedule is anymore because it is just not important to me.

I’m not out to ruin the NFL’s business. I’m just one person who is choosing something else. I’m now watching more of the NHL, and spending Sundays with my kids. In our house the Steelers were 1A and the Penguins were 1B. Now, the Steelers have dropped way down and we are Pens fans in our house. Last year we went to a Stanley Cup finals game, and another game in the playoffs. The money that we used to spend on the NFL we are spending on the NHL.

I know it is not just me that feels this way. Every fall I go away to a hunting camp with a group of guys. In the past, we’d always find a bar in the nearest town and spend Sunday afternoon watching football. This year, nobody wanted to go into town to watch football. We just went hiking and nobody went in to watch football like we always had.

The only game I have watched since Week 2 was the Steelers-Bengals Week 13 Monday night football game. My son and I really didn’t have anything else to do, so we turned it on. That game may have not been a good game to come back and watch because it was a really dirty game. Lots of unsportsmanlike conduct. Then you see the replays of the dirty hits and I’m just like, O.K., I wasted my time.

I’m not saying that I’ll never watch the Steelers again, but they are a lower priority. I have no plans to watch any games the Steelers aren’t involved in. If the Steelers are playing and I have something better to do, I won’t be watching. I honestly found that life goes on without sitting in front of a TV on a Sunday afternoon in the fall.


Will Solit, 12, New York City, seventh grader

The last time I watched a full football game on TV was probably two or three years ago. I just watch to keep track of my fantasy players, I don’t really root for one team. The only reason I’d ever be interested in watching a whole game would be if my fantasy quarterback was playing.

I’m in a fantasy football league with nine friends from school, and every Sunday, we all go to one of our houses and watch RedZone all day and order lots of buffalo wings. We each put in $20 for the league, so the winner wins $200. The loser has to do a bunch of embarrassing stuff, like wearing a pink tutu, purple shoes, and a shirt that says, “I suck at fantasy football” to school for a whole week.

Everyone brings their computer over on Sundays. If I don’t have any players in the series on RedZone, then I’ll go on my computer and track the play-by-play of some of my players. I’ve got a good team—Tom Brady, Gronk, LeSean McCoy...

If I don’t have a ton of players playing at 1 o’clock, I’ll take a break and play Madden. I’ve been to three Giants games this year, and even though I’m at the game, I’ll be on my ESPN app for like two-thirds of the game, checking on my fantasy players.

I have one friend whose dad always tries to make us watch Giants games on TV when we are at his house. But games are too boring with all the commercials, so we just go to his room and watch RedZone.


Kevin Williams, 46, public affairs, Eglin Air Force base, Navarre, Fla.

At least for now, Kevin Williams has found new ways to spend his Sunday afternoons.

At least for now, Kevin Williams has found new ways to spend his Sunday afternoons.

​On the Sunday after President Trump made his tweet, I turned on the ESPN the pregame show and that’s all they were talking about. Just politics, for like 20 minutes. I was like, are they going to talk about football at all? This is what we are doing now? It’s all about the kneeling and the tweets and the protests. So I turned it off and I called the marina in Pensacola to see if they had a boat available, and they did, so I just went sailing instead.

For me, football was always about the escape. If I wanted to know somebody’s political opinion, I know what channel to go to for that. The politics got too loud. Everybody is so divided right now in this country, it’s insane, and football used to be an escape for that. You were able to watch something without all the noise. It is one of the few times as Americans that we actually come together for something.

That day, I thought my decision to not watch the NFL was probably just going to be a knee-jerk reaction, but I still haven’t watched a game. I’ve been surprised at how easy it’s been. Ever since junior high, I’ve been watching games religiously every Sunday. Not just my Carolina Panthers, but every game on Sunday. I had NFL Sunday Ticket and when DirecTV announced they would give out refunds for the season, I called and I got a refund. I still keep up with the scores, but as far as watching the games, I’ve been doing other stuff with my time now. I try to get out on the water sailing. It’s really peaceful and you can get away from all the noise.

I did 24 years in the Air Force and in my first enlistment and in every enlistment since, I took an oath to defend the constitution of the United States. So when American citizens exercise their rights, it lets me know that I did my job. I know of six friends, all veterans, who have stopped watching this season because they disagree with the anthem protests. That’s not why I decided to stop watching; I’m O.K. with guys protesting, I just couldn’t handle the politics infiltrating the game.

If all the politics were removed from it and everything cooled down, I’d watch again. But then again, with Trump, you never know what he is going to tweet and how the players will react. I don’t know that the money the NFL has set aside for social justice causes is going to solve anything, but I am glad that the players have gotten the attention for their causes.

I wouldn’t call this a boycott for me. I’ve stepped away from the game for now. I'll probably watch again. Especially if the Panthers make the playoffs...

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