While virtually everything on television declines almost every year, simply as a result of ever-expanding viewing options, when NFL ratings slip it seems to cause undue panic in many quarters.
Among the reasons suggested for the viewer falloff: competition from the high-rated Presidential debates; less-appealing early Monday and Thursday night games; Peyton Manning retiring and Tom Brady missing the first four games; Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem (one of the more ridiculous explanations).
Pre-election, ratings were down by more than 12% from the previous year. Post-election, they were down about 5% (which is a really minor, and I would argue meaningless, decline).
I think the increasing popularity of the Red Zone channel and daily fantasy football might be the most significant cause of declining NFL ratings on Sunday afternoons.
During last season, I recorded several random games on different networks, to analyze the game dynamics. Here’s what I found. Just 33% of the total game time was devoted to actual playing action, 24% was devoted to commercials/billboards, and 43% were other things (huddling, unpiling, measurements, clock stopping after incomplete passes, substitutions, video replays, and game timeouts).
Commissioner Roger Goodell recently published a letter to fans noting ways the League believes it can quicken the pace and improve the game for both attendees and viewers at home.
Two key elements should work well. First, the current commercial break count is five in the first, third, and fourth quarters, and six in the second quarter. The plan is to have four commercial breaks in each quarter (and add a 30-second commercial to each). This way, there will be the same commercial load (so the networks don’t lose any money), but five fewer commercial breaks per game (from 21 to 16).
To me, as a fan, the frequency of interruptions is more annoying than the length of each interruption, and an extra 30 seconds for each break will not be noticeable. I’ve also done research in the past that indicated people perceive fewer commercials when there are fewer breaks.
The NFL is also considering eliminating commercial breaks following kickoffs, eliminating the annoyance of coming back from a commercial break, having a kickoff, then immediately going to another commercial break.
Second, the NFL will now centralize video replays in New York instead of going to a sideline monitor. This should moderately speed up the process and result in more consistent decisions.
Last year, football fantasy sites, Draft Kings and Fan Duel (now merged) spent a ton of money on advertising, effectively promoting the NFL, which likely resulted in a lot of football viewers getting involved in daily fantasy football (as I did for the first time this past season).
You’d think this would result in higher ratings for NFL game telecasts, but it might have actually had the opposite effect. Many viewers care as much (sometimes more) about their fantasy teams than their real teams. Stats compiled by individual players are more important to many viewers than spending more than three hours watching an entire game. The Red Zone Channel was made for such fans -- just watch the players who are about to score points. And numerous online fantasy sites, highlight shows, NFL Mobile, etc., enable people to just check the performance of their fantasy teams on their smartphones.
What does all this mean for next season? Ratings may well be up again, but more likely they will be down slightly. But NFL Football will remain by far the highest-rated sports on television, along with the best venues for promoting a network’s prime-time lineup. And, because it is watched primarily live, football will remain one of the best advertising vehicles around.
If the NFL really wants to improve ratings, there is one thing that would have an immediate positive effect: allow end-zone celebrations again.