By Dan Bernstein
Amid all of the armchair analysis of the NFL’s television ratings issues come two recent reports, which, when viewed together, seem to cut through the noise and get to something meaningful.
There has been a storm of socio-political proxy fighting that has used anecdotal and cherry-picked evidence from both sides to make the viewership declines into something they are not. One group insists that “patriotic” (read: white) American fans are fed up with all these entitled players daring to insist that the country may have some inequalities and injustices that need to be addressed and engaging in peaceful protest, because it somehow intrudes on their enjoyment of watching them kill each other. Another group has had it with a league that insists on rigid deference to authority and engages in overt celebration of the military-industrial complex. Some are apparently just waking to the fact that all the collisions are bad for the human brain, and claim to just now be starting to care.
It’s all exhausting, and largely beside the point.
Sports Business Journal cites general football fatigue as the key issue, caused by oversaturation. The TV bigwigs involved with the league never liked the creep of the game into Thursday night viewing, nor the counterproductive start times of the many London games that have put the NFL in front of us at too many points.
They quote Fox Sports exec Mike Mulvhill, who argues “The rise in football availability is pretty dramatic. This is what drives fragmentation in every area of television. Clearly whatever that interest is, it’s being spread out over quite a few more windows than it was 10 years ago.”
And a recently published study by management consultants McKinsey & Company entitled “We Were Wrong About Millennial Sports Fans” takes a deeper dive into the data of fragmentation, showing more broadly that “fans of all ages — not just millennials — are watching fewer games and quitting them faster.” They also note the increases in digital streaming of live games, and increased viewership on unauthorized or pirated streams across all platforms.
The football fans are there and the sport remains immensely popular, but our accelerated lives leave us less able to plop down on the couch for three or more hours multiple times per week. It makes sense, for any of us who often make use of the NFL’s own app to check scores and highlights in real time, even if we’re Gen Xers.
So a reasonable interpretation reveals that this has conspired to start to change some habitual behaviors that are now measurable. “I do believe there is a lot of football on and by the time you get to Sunday, there could be a fatigue,” NBC honcho Mark Lazarus told SBJ. “Much of the loss of viewers is coming from 18-34 year olds. They more and more are getting satisfied by the alternatives of highlights and scores that are available during the game. That continues to train young viewers to follow our sports, not watch our sports.”
Follow, not watch. And let’s get beyond the concentration on demographic slices, too. The McKinsey study says specifically that “we find that age is an ineffective way to segment and target digital sports fans. Older generations (Gen Xers in particular) are adopting digital technology almost as fast as millennials, and fans’ online behaviors are far better signs of purchase intent.”
Fans are engaging with the NFL differently, and on their own terms, in ways made possible by new technologies. Instead of merely worrying about ratings erosion, the league just needs to connect with the fans where they are.
McKinsey concludes “Generation X wanted its MTV. Millennials have fear of missing out. Both generations are consuming digital sports voraciously, at the expense of traditional TV viewing. Sports marketers who target the right behaviors (rather than traditional viewer segments) and develop digital products to take advantage of them will develop stronger fan bases than ever before.”
So while network executives consider the possibility that there is simply too much NFL to be adequately consumed, they would also be well served to re-focus their thinking on all the other ways their television product ultimately reaches the consumer.
It’s not really Colin Kaepernick or the meaning of the flag, or head injuries or too many penalties or the latest stupid tweet from Donald Trump, it’s a whole bunch of football and less time to view it all.