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Down time | Is the NFL suffering a blip, or a more serious decline?

  • TV ratings recover, but still well down
  • Restrictions on social media have made way for a more open-minded approach 
  • NBA most likely property to overtake the NFL

There is one question that strikes pure panic into the heart of any successful athlete. The very notion gnaws at the ego to such an extent that careers are shortened for fear of it while legacies are irrevocably tarnished if one fails to address it.

Is my faltering form just a blip or is it the end?

The same applies to a sport, of course. Boxing remains relevant despite perennial post-mortems but it has little of the intense global popularity it enjoyed in the early to mid-20th century. 

Speedway was among the most watched sports in Britain in the 1970s but crowds are poor these days. It gets minimal column inches and its TV coverage almost feels like filler content during the barren summer months. Ditto snooker, which has slid some way since its mid-80s high.

These days the dominant global game is called “football”. The round-ball version is king pretty much everywhere apart from the US where the “pigskin” holds court.

However, the gridiron game has endured such a chastening few years that questions over its future are being asked.

Worrying drop

US TV ratings for the NFL fell alarmingly at the start of last season before recovering somewhat to register a still worrying drop of 8%. There were significant dips on the major game days: Monday (12%), Thursday (14%) and Sunday (10%). 

An interesting if not entirely rigorous study using geolocation app Foursquare on smartphones even suggested that game watching in sports bars was down 13%.

In the meantime, the NBA finals series was the most watched since 1998 while Game 7 of the World Series between the Cubs and the Indians achieved its best rating in a quarter of a century. 

As the Wall Street Journal put it: “The aura of invincibility had cracked”. 

Just like that insecure athlete might protest, there were plausible responses put forward for the NFL’s predicament – the ongoing concussion issues, the dominance of the Patriots, the lack of real heroes, the anthem protest (pictured), even the presidential contest. 

Others just cited bad, unattractive games. 

Most intriguing of all, it was even suggested that football fans have been quick to move from the traditional, well-measured forms of media consumption, such as television, to the less-measured digital forms (more of that later).

But were they reasons or excuses?

Is this just a minor realignment or, to use an overused buzzword, major disruption? 

Either way, the response from the NFL has been urgent and widespread with a heavy bent on digital and social media. Its biggest TV deal, a $27.9bn (€24.0bn) agreement with Fox, CBS and Comcast, runs to 2022, so the league has the luxury of a little time.

Nonetheless, the hints of feathers being ruffled came almost three years ago when the league clamped down on teams’ social media output on game day. This came in the wake of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao, the ‘fight of the century’ that many saw free on the live video streaming platform Periscope after the pay-per-view mechanism faltered.

Live streaming

As ever, the rights-holders’ first concern was protecting its plum – the live game. Clubs reacted with a mixture of shock and sarcasm. The league has rolled back its approach since then, but live streaming is still not allowed from 15 minutes before kick-off and, with some specific exceptions, highlights are not available natively on a club’s social channel. 

However, it is highly significant that this season touchdown celebrations can be posted in-game on Twitter, and other platforms if the league publishes them first. These are social media gold, exactly the fun, visual and viral content that will attract a young audience. 

Like most sporting bodies, the NFL has seen social media as crucial in their pursuit of the millennial and Gen-Y demographics who have been cutting their cords so easily. The one-season, $10m-deal with Twitter for 10 Thursday night games was deemed a qualified success last year. 

This year, Amazon took that slot for five times the money and the NFL will have received a significant benefit from the marketing holler of the online retail behemoth. 

Twitter still has some skin in the game. #NFLBlitz is a 30-minute live show streamed five-days-a-week, year-round on the social media platform. It features live pitchside content pre-game via Periscope plus highlights and analysis. 

The Amazon deal may have hogged the headlines but the greatest amount of content is going on Facebook. Recaps of every game – 256 regular-season fixtures, playoffs and Superbowl – will be available for a global audience. There are also three shows on Facebook’s new Watch platform, billed as a competitor to Netflix and Amazon Prime. The most interesting is Sound FX, which is based on the players’ utterances while being mic’d up during games. 

In addition, the NFL has a healthy YouTube channel with 2.5m subscribers and, in the past, has had deals with Snapchat for prime real estate in the Discover platform.

Overseas markets

Digital has been the preferred method for the NFL to chase its overseas markets too. Last season it became the first global sports league to stream content in China after agreeing a deal with multi-faceted Chinese social media platform, Sina Weibo.

Ahead of this season, NFL inked a three-year contract to make Tencent its destination for content in the world’s most populous country. This includes streaming games on numerous platforms and content on WeChat, which boasts 960 million active users on its own.

The deal will support the long-held ambition to develop the game in China. Plans are being drawn up to play a competitive game there in 2019 and the well-established London games have always had the double benefit of providing a more favourable kick-off time in the Far East than those in the US.

If you stack up all the digital deals, it looks impressive and wide-reaching but the Amazon agreement remains the most significant. It is the company’s first foray with a major sporting league and they have the financial acumen to develop a portfolio that may change the media landscape of sport if they deem it sufficiently successful. 

But, according to Mark Burns of SportsBusiness Chronicle, it is early days for both that deal and the notion that NFL’s No1 position is under threat.

“The viewership numbers on Amazon have been solid for having been behind a paywall,” he says. “At the end of the day, this is a marketing and data deal. Amazon wants to drive Prime subscriptions and glean more consumer data information.

“The overall concern about the NFL will be real when advertising dollars start to decrease and/or sponsors — long-term or short-term — start to decrease their spending or allocate their monies elsewhere. 

“If you’re talking viewership, the NFL still has a massive following. Just look at the Super Bowl, and it’s still viewed by 115 million people across the globe.

“Domestically, the NBA is incredibly hot right now. With all of the star power in the league and the constant flow of new storylines, if there was any league looking to ‘beat’ the NFL — however you define that — I’d suggest the NBA. With that said, I don’t expect that happening anytime soon.”

Avenues of change

That is almost certainly true, the time-frame we are analysing is just too short. Empires rarely crumble overnight, especially when the actions of the NFL suggest they are not blind to their problems and have opened up avenues of change.

The same thing is true in football of the spherical variety. Those predicting the Premier League rights bubble to burst have been very wrong so far and the governing body has adjusted its stance on social media in an attempt to balance current broadcasters and the future audience.

If anything, the problem may not lie with the current cord-cutters anyway; it is those eight-to 10-year-olds who are cooped up in their bedrooms right now transfixed on a games console or swiping through a raft of enticing, user-generated YouTube channels. The dramatic shift in the media landscape means they could grow up outside the value system of traditional sport and the broadcasters who show it. 

If their heroes are esports champions and influencers, then they may never buy a cord to cut and they will be hard to find via established advertising methods.

That is the challenge not only to NFL but to every sport with something to lose.

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