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NFL Ratings Were Never a Problem—But There Is One Major Threat to the League’s Media Dominance

Research shows “Trump effect” wasn’t real, and the slight dip in viewership over the past two years has been reversed with new faces and healthy stars in 2018. The NFL remains a programming juggernaut with strong appeal for traditional and non-traditional media entities, but with the landscape changing fast, the league needs to be forward-thinking to address its real challenges—and opportunities

With a noticeable uptick in NFL ratings this season so far, we can put to rest the silly notion that the behemoth that is the NFL is somehow at risk of losing its perch atop the American sporting landscape. After a ratings dip in 2016-17—whether due to a polarizing election process, player protests, lack of quality games, stars being injured, etc.— the NFL is exceeding last year’s numbers at this point of the season in most or all categories. And, in my opinion, any concern that the ratings dip portended something ominous about the NFL’s continued dominance as a broadcast option was (1) overblown (2) unnecessary and, perhaps most importantly, (3) would never to be reflected in future media contracts anyway.


As I discussed in my recent column on player health and safety, this is not your father’s NFL. Ratings for any and all television programming will never amass the market share of eras gone by. Consumers now have virtually unlimited options for content delivery, and I see it firsthand: My two sons barely know what that object in the living room is—a television—and only view it for live sports programming, primarily NFL games.

When I speak to groups, I ask for a show of hands from those who have binge-watched a series, whether on television, Netflix, Amazon, etc. Every hand goes up. I then ask how many have binge-watched sporting events. No hands are raised. This shows both the power and opportunity sports present for broadcast networks, with built-in advantages over other programming because of its immediacy. Network executives know that DVR-proof live programming is gold. And there is no bigger purveyor of that gold than the NFL.

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Even amidst the ratings “dip” in 2017 Nielsen research showed (1) NFL prime time games on Sunday and Thursday were among the top five shows in 2017 among the key 18-49 demographic; and (2) an eye-popping 37 of the 50 top-rated shows were NFL games.

Last year will also be known in the annals of NFL history as the year when, at various points throughout the season, President Trump (1) attacked NFL players as “sons of bitches” for not standing for the national anthem; (2) implored NFL owners to discipline and/or fire players who refused to stand and (3) reveled in the NFL’s ratings decline.

As it turned out, however, there was no “Trump effect” on 2017 NFL ratings. USA Today explored ratings in red states, blue states and everywhere in between. I interviewed the author of the report, Matt Wynn, on my “Business of Sports” podcast, who noted the following findings:

• In areas that voted heavily for Trump, the total overall ratings drop was less than one percentage point;
• In New Orleans, a market that strongly supported Trump, local NFL ratings soared;
• In the week that Vice President Pence attended a Colts game—only to walk out due to player protests—ratings rose in Indianapolis for that week (Pence is the former governor of Indiana);
• In Wisconsin, a Trump state from the election, Packers ratings set new records (even with Aaron Rodgers not playing in the majority of the season due to injury).

Wynn summed up his findings this way: “If you had asked me, I would have said of course there was an effect on ratings. But we looked at the data through 100 different lenses, and it just wasn't there.”

The evidence continues in 2018. Week 5’s Monday Night Football game, a blowout by the Saints over the Redskins, more than doubled the rating of a competing Major League Baseball playoff game featuring the most compelling rivalry in the sports: Red Sox vs. Yankees. Sunday’s Chiefs-Patriots SNF game pulled a 14.6 national rating; the ALCS game between the Red Sox and Astros did a 4.1.

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The bottom line, of course, is the bottom line. Even if ratings continued to decline, does anyone really think that CBS, NBC, ESPN, Fox, etc. would try to play hardball in negotiations with the NFL in a couple of years? Really? Those networks would be less relevant without the NFL. And the networks aren’t the only entities in play anymore.

We are seeing the future of NFL media on Thursday Night Football. I contribute NFL business insights for Amazon’s streaming of TNF on Prime Video, which is concurrent with a network element (Fox) and a cable element (NFL Network). Amazon represents just one of the digital media giants that have had a taste of NFL programming—Verizon, Yahoo and Twitter are among the others—and will certainly want more. (Amazon is also contracted to stream again in 2019.)

And it is not a zero-sum game. The NFL will negotiate both traditional media deals (Fox/CBS/NBC/ESPN, etc.) and nontraditional media deals (Amazon/Google/Facebook, etc.). This is your future of NFL programming, with concurrent revenue streams from traditional and nontraditional media outlets.

When it comes to future broadcast revenue and options, there are salad days ahead for NFL owners.


Any ratings decline—if there were one—will not threaten the NFL’s continued prosperity and popularity. Nor will player protests (that rancor has already dissipated) or concussions (the violence of the game is part of its attraction).

But there is one true threat, and it is this: How does the NFL attract and maintain younger viewers?

This is the key challenge for NFL executives, and those in all sports. Viewers in all major sports are skewing older; sustainability is threatened. The NFL must present an attractive option for younger viewers who have unlimited options at their fingertips and eyeballs. The NFL cannot be complacent here, and it knows it. Maintaining and attracting viewers is its most pressing threat and challenge.

How, then, to meet that challenge? Well, that is for another column, but here are a couple initial ideas. First, the product must be shorter. Younger viewers will not tolerate investing 180 to 200 minutes for a product with 11 to 12 minutes of action. The NFL started using shorter breaks and split-screen advertising last year; that was just a start. Games will need to be a lot closer to two and a half hours than three; consumers will demand it.

Another way that the NFL will engage younger viewers—and they already have through fantasy—is via legalized gambling, thrust on the NFL by a United States Supreme Court ruling (the league would have preferred that it come from federal legislation). Betting fans watch significantly more NFL football than non-betting fans (according to Nielsen Research); NFL executives know the monetization opportunities that brings. And regardless of the NFL’s “integrity” concerns (which ring hollow after the placement of a team in Las Vegas), owners are looking everywhere for new revenue streams. Sports betting presents an invaluable fan engagement tool.

Finally, any threat to the NFL is blunted by its built-in head start, with generations of parents handing down their love and passion of the NFL to future generations. I lived in Europe for two years, and it always seemed to be that the youth of Europe were indoctrinated with soccer—as in mainlined into their veins—at a young age. That has parallels in this country with the NFL.

Thus, pay no attention to ratings stories, even the current ones reflecting an upward trend. The NFL has been, is, and will be king on that front for the foreseeable future. And the next round of (massive) media deals will reflect it.

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