Richard Clarke rounds-up some of the ways in which digital, social media and technology impacted the NFL during the 2018 season.
Super Bowl LII culminated in a long, despairing and ultimately unsuccessful ‘Hail Mary’ pass from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Over the past few years, much has been written to suggest that NFL is in need of similar desperate measures. And, yes, a double-digit decline in television ratings is hardly positive. Neither is the fact that their showpiece game attracted its lowest audience in nine years in 2018.
However, the triumph of the Philadelphia Eagles still pulled in 106m viewers and, therefore, enters the record books as the 10th most-watched show in US television history. The nine above it in the list are eight modern Super Bowls and the finale of M*A*S*H, which was broadcast back in the days when major shows could temporarily hijack a nation’s psyche.
And 37 of the top 50 US television shows in 2017 were still NFL games. So sure, there are signs of wear and tear, but the NFL empire is not crumbling to dust just yet.
Still, like most major right-holders, there are valid concerns around cord-cutters and those who intend never to splash out on cable television in the first place.
One of the supposed turn-offs last season was the seemingly never-ending US election coverage (though critics question why it would affect NFL more than the other major leagues). This season, political drama enveloped the NFL.
The President of the United States is well-known for his scattergun use of social media. Early in the season, Donald Trump took aim at the growing movement of NFL players – started by quarterback Colin Kaepernick – kneeling during the national anthem to protest racialised police violence.
The row spiralled out of control on social media with Trump calling for owners to take charge of their employees. John Schnatter, the CEO of Papa Johns pizza, a major NFL sponsor, waded in by blaming relatively poor TV ratings on the players’ “un-American” stance. He lost his job on the back of his remarks.
ESPN’s NFL presenter Jamele Hill was suspended from her job after a series of tweets about Trump’s stance and one, in particular, calling for fans to boycott sponsors of the Dallas Cowboys after owner Jerry Jones stood firmly behind the President.
On the flipside, the truly social side of social media was exemplified by the generosity of Buffalo Bills fans. Their team went into the last round of games needing not only to beat the Miami Dolphins, but see the unfancied Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Baltimore Ravens, in order to make the Playoffs.
The Bills did their business with little fuss. But the Bengals were struggling until, with 44 seconds left, quarterback Andy Dalton found Tyler Boyd with a 49-yard touchdown pass. It meant the Bills had secured their first post-season game for 17 years. A social media campaign quickly followed with grateful fans flooding the online donation page of Dalton’s charity for disadvantaged children. Over 2,500 deposits were made in the 24 hours that followed the game, amounting to $57,000 (€46,557). Many were for exactly $17.
On that heart-warming note, let’s round-up the some of the other ways in which digital, social media and technology impacted the NFL during the 2018 season.
The Amazon Deal
Amazon are claiming success with the viewing figures for their Thursday Night Football but, as we know, there are lies, damn lies and online viewing statistics. What we are sure about is that Jeff Bezos’ company paid $50m to live stream 11 regular season games as part of its Prime subscription package. Twitter had paid one-fifth of that figure to show 10 games on the same night via its free social media platform a year earlier.
Here’s where it gets murky. Amazon say their average minute audience (AMA) for at least 30 seconds was 310,000, around 17 per cent higher than Twitter’s 265,800 a year earlier. Amazon used that metric because it was closest to TV metrics used by the likes of Nielsen.
However, Amazon’s peak total reach figure (the total viewership irrespective of the length of stay) was 2m for the Saints v Falcons game on December 7. Twitter had reported an average of 3.5m viewers during their tenure. You have to think Twitter’s free-to-air proposition and auto-play function had an influence here.
Other more general, but more robust, Amazon figures state there were 12.5m hours viewed across 18.4m Prime subscribers in 22 countries.
And, being Amazon, the data drill-down was deep and interesting. For example, Prime subscribers who watched their NFL coverage were 41 per cent more likely to buy a slo-cooker in their store, presumably for those long, long tail-gate parties. Meanwhile the Dallas Cowboys Champion Tech hoodie was the most popular outer-wear purchase by viewers. Extra-large, of course.
— Elma Jad JB (@followm2followu) November 22, 2017
The social media behemoth kickstarted its Live product by dipping into its deep pockets to pay major athletes, pop stars and other celebrities to create content. In NFL, there is no star bigger than Tom Brady, therefore Tom vs Time was a spearhead show for their new Facebook Watch platform. Cameras showed the 40-year-old at home, on family trips, at practices and on game day as he sought a record sixth Superbowl ring.
However, the attention did bring greater scrutiny and Brady cut short his weekly interview slot with a local radio station after a presenter described his five-year-old daughter as “an annoying little pissant”.
Elsewhere, Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch produced a different type of show. “No Script” was raw, authentic, littered with expletives and produced in conjunction with Bleacher Report. The first episode received 1.2m views
The Washington Redskins may have missed out on the Playoffs due to a 7-9 season, but they did manage to scoop the inaugural Madden NFL Club Championship. Hassan “GOS” Spall won $35,000, Super Bowl tickets and place in the Ultimate League in April.
The behind-the-scenes show of the tournament reached 670,000 viewers, the highest figure for an esports show last year.
NFL is not leading the esports rush, but it isn’t stuck on the sidelines either.
Unlike some sporting organisations, it appears that NFL did not believe the endless obituaries written about Snapchat over the course of the past year.
Having failed to purchase the teen-driven social media platform, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg redeveloped Instagram Stories to swipe away its audience. It certainly made a massive dent, but Snap Inc CEO Evan Spiegel was able to announce in February that the app gained almost 9m active users in the final quarter of last year, its best growth for 12 months.
Although its 187m-strong userbase is still well behind Instagram’s 500m, Spiegel drew attention to their NFL content, claiming to have entertained 30m fans with 400 stories and generated $100m in partner revenue. A filter of a giant foam finger, a familiar sight in US sport, proved especially popular.
Verizon Wireless had exclusive rights to stream NFL games on mobile from 2010 to 2017. But late last year it was announced they had swapped that gated approach for a multi-year deal, reportedly worth $2bn, that gave access to all carriers.
ESPN immediately jumped on board for the Playoffs. NBC and Fox have also announced plans to introduce subscription-based streaming services for mobile phones next season.
Super Bowl LII was available on the NBC Sports app, NBCSports.com and the Yahoo Sports app. It set a record at 2m, 15 per cent higher than last year. The peak was 3.1 concurrent streams. Small beans… for now.
There were a couple of nice innovations this season. Zebra Technology was able to put RFID tags in all game-balls. This meant they could track location, rotation and speed, completed pass distance, sack speed etc. Similar tags had been placed in players’ shoulder pads for four seasons, tracking speed. This data was given to teams and was also available for broadcasters.
Meanwhile, the VICIS Zero1 helmet was used for the first time. Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin are investors in a device that cushions impact by deforming and then pushes out to its original shape.