Is The NFL Facing A Viewership Decline?

This NFL season, the league has faced as many storylines on the gridiron as off of it. One of the biggest questions it has faced, though, is related to assertions that the NFL’s ratings are declining.

Sport pundits and President Trump alike have weighed in with theories on what’s causing the decline in NFL television viewership, which was down 10-percent this season over last season’s eight-percent decline. Theories for the decline largely center around the quality of on-field play and concerns over players bringing attention to social justice issues on the sidelines.

While the numbers don’t lie, what’s really driving the NFL’s declining ratings? And more importantly, should the NFL be worried?

Changes In Media Consumption, Not Players’ Social Justice Initiatives, Drive Decline

Attributing the NFL’s television viewership decline to players’ social justice initiatives is surface level analysis, which doesn’t consider underlying consumer media consumption trends.

While some Americans may be turned off by players’ protest of issues on the NFL field, the number of Americans turning off NFL games for this reason has not resulted in a ten-percent year-over-year decline in viewership. Several Super Bowl related factors demonstrate that fans aren’t abandoning the NFL in large over players kneeling.

For instance, secondary ticket prices for this year’s Super Bowl LII are the highest in history, averaging over $5,000 per ticket. And fans are paying this steep amount to attend a Super Bowl in Minneapolis, where the game day temperature may dip as low as -8 degrees and on-site corporate activation was not as large as for other recent Super Bowls.

High ticket prices for Super Bowl LII–the fifth played by the New England Patriots in the last ten-years–signal that demand for the NFL’s product is still high.

So, what can the decline in the NFL’s viewership be attributed to? The answer is simple: Cord cutting. According to Variety, “[i]n 2017, a total of 22.2 million U.S. adults will have cut the cord on cable, satellite or telco TV service to date — up 33% from 16.7 million in 2016.”

With the number of cable and satellite television subscribers declining, television viewership numbers expectedly will similarly decline. Thus, when studying the NFL’s viewership, one can no longer merely point to Nielsen’s ratings, which measure television viewership. Rather, to fully understand the landscape of the NFL’s viewership, analysis of digital consumption data–which is not fully and widely available for every NFL game–must be completed.

Should The NFL Worry About Television Viewership Declines?

The fact still stands that the NFL is facing television viewership declines. But is it time for the league to push the panic button? Three factors signal that any conversation about the NFL’s TV viewership declines is likely overblown.

First, 37 of the 50 most-watched television shows in 2017 were NFL games. This number was up from 28 games in 2016. Given the more widespread nature of player protests during the 2017 NFL season, the increase of NFL games as most-watched television shows in 2017 arguably debunks any argument that players’ protests were driving viewership declines.

Similarly, comparing viewership of NFL games to other televised events featured on the list of the top-50 most-watched television shows demonstrates that declines in television viewership are not NFL specific. Take for instance the Grammy Awards. The 2017 Grammy Awards were the 17th most-watched show that year, drawing in 26.1 million viewers. This year’s Grammy Awards experienced the lowest televised ratings ever, with only 19.8 million Americans tuning in.

Another signal that the NFL’s TV viewership decline is not emblematic of an unhealthy league is the price corporations are paying for Super Bowl advertisements ahead of Super Bowl LII. This year, corporations will pay over $5 million dollar for 30-second ads for the big game. Three-weeks before the game, nearly most of the NFL’s Super Bowl advertisement inventory was sold out, even before the game’s competitors were named. This was also despite the fact that the cost of Super Bowl advertising has increased 87-percent over the last decade, even as television viewership for the league declines.

The biggest signal, though, of the falsity of arguments that the NFL’s corporate health is failing in the wake of declining TV viewership comes from the broadcasting contract the NFL recently signed with Fox for Thursday Night Football. Historically, Thursday Night Football drives the lowest ratings of the NFL’s portfolio of games. Yet, Fox will pay over $3.3 billion to broadcast Thursday Night Football games over the next five seasons. What factor in the contract likely drove the valuation of the deal, though? Fox obtaining the digital rights for the set of games.

To understand viewership of the NFL’s–or any league’s–games, it is no longer enough to consider on-field and off-field issues. Rather, educated analyses of viewership issues consider the biggest factor driving the data: The shift in American media consumption.

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