Heading into 2019, the NFL has seemed to regain its footing with increased television ratings with its network partners and promising audience data from its streaming partners, Yahoo and Amazon. Fans were finally tuning back in to watch professional football, and data showed that viewers were watching for longer periods of time. But this had not been the story of recent years. For much of its storied 100-year history, the NFL’s business had been driven by Sunday television revenue. Fans tuned in at a set time, on a set network, and advertisers paid big dollars for commercial slots. While many current fans still turn to network television to watch their favorite teams, new customers’ habits appear to be more mobile. NFL TV ratings dropped by an average of 8% during the 2016 season – and 10% across the 2017 schedule. At the end of the 2017 season, the NFL responded by opening up its games to mobile streaming technologies, on all phone carriers. While other factors have been at play, notably protests over whether players should have to stand during the national anthem, the business question was clear: How could the NFL adjust its model to reach newer fans on more modern platforms?
Read the timeline below to learn more about the NFL’s recent broadcast history.
NFL broadcasters see TV ratings drop by an average of 8% during the 2016 regular season. The falloff is 1.4 million viewers from the 2016 season and is rooted in primetime games. ESPN’s Monday Night Football audience (17 games) falls by 12%, while NBC’s Sunday Night Football (19 games, including two Thursdays) drops 10%.
Among the reasons cited for the 2016 ratings plunge:
— Football viewership is competing with a ratings-generating U.S. presidential election, including two Sunday night debates
— Viewers are frustrated with the NFL experience—the concussion controversy; player protests during the National Anthem
— A record number of interruptions of play for relatively minor penalties, including what umpires term “excessive celebration” by players, antics that are essentially crowd-pleasing.
— Fans complain that there are too many commercials. In 2016, the number of ads per NFL game reaches an all-time high of 70, according to Nielsen, up from 64 in 2008.
Tumult surrounding the NFL’s brand hits the broadcast networks hard. In October, Credit Suisse cuts CBS’ EPS estimates by 5%, due to declining Sunday game ratings. The firm also lowers its FOX EPS predictions for 2018 and 2019 by 1%.
In December, the NFL sends out an RFP suggesting openness to changing its Thursday Night Football strategy. The Wall Street Journal reports a digital media company could be in the running for the buying rights.
The league also announces that starting with the 2018 playoffs, fans with any cell phone carrier can watch games on the NFL Mobile app, the Yahoo Sports app or Verizon’s go90 streaming-video app.
In January, Nielsen data shows the NFL’s 2017-18 regular season audience is down nearly 10%. Despite fewer viewers, NFL ad revenue is up 2% overall. Of the 50 top programs in 2017, 33 are football-related.
In April, the NFL renews its Thursday Night Football streaming partnership with Amazon.
Following the 2018 regular season, each network partner reports gains. NBC, ESPN and CBS each report 8% jumps, and Fox reports a 4% increase. These increases do not come from more fans watching, but rather from viewers tuning in for longer periods of time.
Not only are the NFL’s network partnerships finding success, but so are its streaming partners. The NFL’s streaming partners announce their viewership data in January. The Yahoo Sports app has 4.3 million downloads. It offered live regular season NFL games on mobile for the first time during the 2018-2019 season. Amazon’s 11 games on Prime Video and Twitch garner 24.4 million total viewers, an average audience of 500,000 per minute and average view time of 59 minutes.
Want to learn more about how the atomization of entertainment media has affected the NFL’s viewership – and how the NFL can reach new audiences? Refer to pgs. 137-139 & 148 in The Strategic Digital Media Entrepreneur.
Sources for NFL timeline:
NFL TV viewership dropped an average of 8 percent this season
CBS earnings to disappoint due to weak NFL ratings, Credit Suisse says
NFL’s cratering ratings may be starting to hit Fox’s bottom line
CMO Today: NFL Ratings
CMO Today: ‘Thursday Night Football’ Shakeup
NFL games will start streaming on all mobile carriers in January — not just Verizon
NFL, Amazon renew streaming partnership for ‘TNF’
NFL ratings on the rise after two seasons of declines
NFL ratings make a comeback