Can You Ever Have Too Much Football?

As the NFL season draws to a close with two exciting conference champion games, the biggest question for many observers is not Patriots or Eagles, but rather “Why are ratings so low again this year?”

One possible reason was suggested by Fox CEO James Murdoch earlier this year when he noted that “the proliferation of Thursday availability—and the proliferation of football generally—does mean that you’re asking a lot from customers.”

His comment was echoed by many others, among them CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus who told The Wall Street Journal that “[A}dding 10 games to the Thursday night package and two additional Sunday morning London games has clearly diluted the Sunday afternoon packages and affected the ratings.”

While others have pointed at everything from a proliferation of highlight clips (NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus called it a “Cliffs Notes” notes to the games that allowed “fans to keep up … without watching the telecast) to the “take a knee” protests during the national anthem.

Recent stats released by Inscape, a company that measures viewing on 7.7 million Vizio smart TVs, would seem to indicate that Murdoch and McManus are on to something.

Tracking the period from January 2016 through mid-December 2017, and counting all weeks where there were both Sunday and a Thursday games, Inscape found that:

  • 29% of all viewers watched football on both Sundays and Thursdays, watching an average of 183 minutes per week.
  • 23% of all viewers watched football only on Sundays, watching an average of 102 minutes per week.
  • 2.5% of all viewers watched football only on Thursdays, watching an average of 73 minutes per week.

The diagram below shows how this all plays out:

NFL all TV viewers by weekday

What we can see is that while the Thursday games are popular with hardcore fans, those hardcore fans only make up around one-third of the audience. One-quarter of the audience avoids Thursday games entirely, although they watch games every Sunday. Factoring that in helps explain the lower ratings—Thursday games have much lower ratings than Sunday games, and only a paltry 2.5% of the audience watches the Thursday games rather than the Sunday ones.

Factors Behind The NFLs Ratings Decline

Overload appears to be the primary reason for the NFL’s ratings drops—as Murdoch pointed out, a football fan is now expected to watch on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, with Saturdays set aside for college games. That’s a heavy schedule, especially in today’s time-crunched world.

Which is why Lazarus’s comment is also pertinent. As we’d pointed out in this piece last year about ESPN, the availability of engaging “Cliffs Notes” style recaps allows fans to keep up with games without actually having to spend hours watching them, a big plus in today’s always connected world, where workers are expected to be available at all hours, football or no football.

It would also be short-sighted to assume the “take a knee” boycott had no affect on ratings. There were definitely fans who were not happy with the notion of athletes using NFL games to send a political message and with the actual message itself—certainly enough to impact ratings at some level.

The Amazon Factor

Given that overload still appears to be the primary reason behind the ratings decline, it may be time for the NFL to rethink Thursday nights.  As Zeev Neumeier, SVP of Product at Inscape notes, "Thursday nights are about money and ratings, not about a unique national audience. This is a frequency play for advertisers, one that may have some local market appeal one week over the next. This is not about networks paying a premium for a unique audience.”

One option for the NFL might be to cede Thursday nights to OTT players. Amazon is already paying for Thursday night broadcasts and it would be an interesting experiment to see if they could grow the NFL’s audience on Thursday nights, bringing in new viewers who didn’t watch on Sundays or Mondays.

An Amazon play could be worthwhile for the NFL for many other reasons too: data and t-commerce. Not only would Amazon know the shopping habits of NFL viewers, data the league could then use to sell advertising, Amazon would also be able to sell NFL merchandise to viewers by placing ads on the Amazon website. Amazon already has a powerful billion dollar ad business that’s built on units many users don’t even recognize as advertising since everything on Amazon sort of looks like an ad. Should some of those ads be related to their favorite NFL team, all the better. Amazon can even play with pricing, seeing what dollar amount gets the most uptake for particular items, which can help the NFL set future pricing and product development.

Whatever the NFL does, it needs to think about the value of scarcity. When it seems like football is everywhere and that the expanded schedule is being done to benefit advertisers, not viewers, then fans are going to flee.

By putting viewers front and center again, and making Sunday games special, the NFL has a good shot a getting its ratings across the 50 yard line once again.

Read more at Forbes.