Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 30, 2016

For The NFL, A Blip Or A Turning Point?

The calendar readies for its turn to November, taking us deep into autumn. The ghosts and goblins prepare for their annual parade, and in most parts of the country morning temperatures have begun their inevitable slide down the thermometer. As the rugged residents of the make-believe land of Westeros are fond of saying, winter is coming. In the sports world, that of course means that the National Football League reigns supreme, as millions of Americans from sea to shining sea set aside three or four hours on Sunday afternoon to watch their gridiron heroes.

Except this year something unexpected is happening. As has been widely reported, with the NFL’s regular season nearing its midpoint, television ratings are down significantly. Overall viewership through last weekend was down 12 percent compared to one year earlier. For the league’s primetime offerings the news is even worse. Ratings for the evening games broadcast by CBS on Thursdays, NBC on Sundays and ESPN on Mondays have dropped by as much as 21 percent.

League executives have been at a loss to explain the falloff, perhaps because it is so out of character with the news that usually comes out of the NFL’s marketing department. As football has risen to dominate the sports landscape in the U.S., the league’s top brass, led by Commissioner Roger Goodell, have espoused a vision of the future in which growth continues unabated. Not content with running a $10 billion sports enterprise, Goodell set a goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by the latter part of the next decade.

Television rights are a key component of meeting that goal. Two years ago, when the contracts with the networks listed above plus Fox were renewed, the multi-year package nearly doubled in value, from $20.4 billion for the previous deal to $39.6 billion for the current term that runs through 2022. For the networks’ individual contracts to make sense, each broadcaster must sell a lot of advertising at constantly escalating rates. In turn, for companies to justify that kind of marketing expense, ever higher numbers of viewers have to be watching those commercials.

Neither the NFL nor any of its billionaire team owners, nor any of the major broadcast networks, are about to go broke. Earlier this year CBS peddled ads for Super Bowl 50 at more than $5 million for a 30-second spot. But the ratings for the on-field product so far this season at the very least add a note of caution to the NFL’s always suspect projections of continuing growth on into the mists of the future.

Some of the reasons for the decline in views are probably cyclical. The NFL has pointed to the three-ring circus that is the 2016 presidential campaign as a contributing factor, and it is true that in past presidential election years ratings have dropped, though never as much as this year. Many fans blame the quality of the competition. Three of the four AFC divisions, and two of four in the NFC, have just one team with a record about .500. The Cleveland Browns have yet to win a game, and teams like Jacksonville, Chicago and San Francisco aren’t a whole lot better. But even last week’s game between New England and Pittsburgh, two elite franchises with large fan bases, attracted 11 percent fewer viewers than the comparable contest last season.

That suggests more deeply rooted problems for the NFL, of which three stand out. First is the long-term movement away from network television and expensive monthly cable packages. Younger viewers, and now even some not so young, are taking their viewing habits to the internet and to devices other than the flat screen in the family room. While those fans may still be watching, they aren’t doing so in a manner that supports those multi-billion dollar contracts between the league and the traditional broadcast networks.

Second is the necessary reliance on advertising to justify those contracts. Several years ago a Wall Street Journal study estimated that a typical NFL contest has just eleven minutes of time that the ball is in play. That limited action is increasingly interrupted by lengthy commercial breaks that make watching a game a difficult exercise in patience for fans possessing ever shortening attention spans.

The third and most difficult problem for the NFL is the changing view of many fans toward the game. The hard hitting that was celebrated for so long has been replaced by growing concern over the long-term health effects of playing a violent sport. The spate of players retiring early due to health concerns and the rising number of parents keeping their children from playing youth football should be warning signs to the league about football’s future popularity.

Along with that, Goodell and company have tarnished the NFL’s image with erratic responses to disciplinary issues. The most recent case was that of Giants kicker Josh Brown, originally suspended for one game over domestic abuse allegations.

The suspension was far less than the supposed standard for a case like Brown’s, but the league originally cited mitigating circumstances, namely the decision by Brown’s now ex-wife to press charges. As experts in the field know, this is hardly an unusual circumstance and no proof of innocence. Then Giants’ owner John Mara compounded the problem by stating that Brown had informed the club of previous incidents of abuse, but adding “what’s a little unclear is the extent of that.” Allowing that the statement was likely an unfortunate choice of words, it set Mara up for ridicule as fans asked just how much abuse was apparently acceptable to the owner and his team.

Perhaps at this time next year, when the country isn’t in the midst of an election season, or when a few more franchises are playing better football, or maybe when there isn’t a compelling World Series taking place, the ratings for NFL games will be back to their older numbers and once again climbing. But the warning signs suggest otherwise. Roger Goodell and the rest of the NFL leadership, seduced for so long by their own promises of unending growth, would do well to consider a different, and less rosy, future.


  1. Thanks for your balanced look at the NFL’s situation. I have no idea what the cause, or solution, to the problem is but I do know this:The games go on whether I view them or not, and in 1 hour I can see all of the highlights on Sportscenter—if I even care—and these days it’s not-so-much.

    • Hi Allan, sorry to be slow to reply. I think you and I and many others have figured out that to the extent we are interested the highlights will show us everything we need to know. As you suggest, that “extent” is also steadily diminishing.

      Thanks as always,

      Michael Cornelius

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