The big sports media story for 2016 has been the decline in TV ratings for the NFL. They will likely pick up over the remainder of the season, but it is clear that there is something going on with America’s football watching habits. There are no shortages of theories why the game seems to have lost some appeal.
First and foremost, the quality of play has noticeably declined over the years, resulting in a lot of mediocre teams and uncompetitive, sloppy games. The league is a morass of penalties and mistakes — somewhat caused by teams turning over a large portion of their roster every year. The lack of quality coaching and quarterbacking is indicative of this decline.
There was also a backlash against the national anthem protests, but it is unlikely a core reason for the ratings fall off. However, it was another image black eye for the league on top of deflate-gate, player arrests for domestic violence and drug/PED suspensions. Perhaps the most damaging is the established link between playing football and brain damage in the form of CTE. Watching football is tantamount to watching someone shorten their life.
Additionally, there are legitimate complaints about the over commercialization of the game. From the questionable embrace of fantasy football to the over-saturation of the game, it is a turnoff to long-time fans. Thursday games have been a disaster in terms of quality and the fact fans know they exist purely to rake in more money. The perception of a two-handed money grab is also apparent in the number of TV commercials jammed into a game. It is an endless array of tired ads for vehicles, beer, wireless services and pharma ads aimed at men of a certain age. A 60-minute football game has roughly 12 minutes of actual action and takes a nearly four-hour time commitment to watch on TV from beginning to end.
In contrast, the English Premier League soccer games are 90 minutes of continuous action, with only a few commercials at halftime. They have found other ways to satisfy sponsors without traditional TV ads interrupting the flow of the game and is much more enjoyable to watch. However, their ratings are also down. This leads us to think there must be something structural at work to decrease viewership.
The fact is we just don’t consume media or watch TV the same way we did in the ’80s and ’90s. The ratings for the 2016 Olympics disappointed as they did for all the major live entertainment award shows — all way down. With the exception of a few digital bells and whistles, the NFL network broadcast is the same as it was 25 years ago. It represents the old order when the networks had the power and we obediently watched what they gave us.
Cord-cutting has put a dent in viewership as has social and mobile media. For casual fans, there is no reason to invest four hours in being bludgeoned with commercials when you can keep up with a game on social media or with mobile app notifications. The video highlights are easy to find if you want to see them later.
When it comes to media consumption, our brains have been rewired, especially those of younger fans. We live in a streaming on-demand and interactive world. We don’t want to sit back and watch linear ad-supported TV, we want to participate — and be in control. It is lean in vs. lean back. According to Nielsen, 2016 marks the first time both DVR and access to streaming video on demand has a 50% penetration of U.S. households. In 2016, 69.8 million Americans will use an ad blocker on a computer or mobile device, a jump of 34.4% over last year. Next year, that figure will grow another 24.0% to 86.6 million people, according to eMarketer.
Content producers, media companies and marketers have to accept the fact that the old ways won’t work anymore. Consumers want to be active participants, not passive pawns waiting to be sold by the latest 30-second spot or banner ad. It is a multiple screen world where consumers get content from social networks, their peers and other influencers in addition to trusted media. They want an ad-free, on-demand environment and will gladly pay to get it. A business model aimed at consumers that is dependent on interruptive advertising needs to adapt to the new media reality. The arc of history only moves forward, never back.