What Strategies Can Increase NFL Football Ratings?

by Aaron Brooks
on April 15, 2018

National Football League executives pooh-poohed a severe drop in TV ratings in 2016, pointing to the hurricane that rocked the southern United States and coverage of the presidential election as reasons that not as many Americans tuned into NFL football as usual.

But after enduring another season with diminished TV numbers, the NFL clearly has a problem on their hands. According to a CNN report in mid-December, ratings for 2017 were actually 9% lower than the previous year. Things didn’t get any better in the playoffs either, where an absence of marquee franchises and stud quarterbacks may have been partly to blame for a 16% drop from the previous post-season’s ratings.

Don’t feel too sorry for the NFL just yet. The league is still the most-watched product on TV, and ad revenue increased 3% from 2016. As a live sporting event, NFL football is one of just a few incentives for people to still have cable and satellite subscriptions.

Still, no matter how much money a company is making, they always want to make more, and they certainly don’t want to start making less. With that in mind, what strategies can the NFL use to get their ratings headed back in the right direction?

Why are NFL ratings dropping?

No one really knows the definitive answer to this question, but there are a few logical explanations for why the NFL has seen their ratings drop in each of the past two seasons.

1. National Anthem Protests

President Trump believes that players kneeling during the national anthem is the #1 cause of declining NFL ratings. If that’s the case, then Trump also deserves some of the credit (or blame) for the ratings drop in 2017.

At the start of the season, only a handful of players were still kneeling in continuation of the protest of racial inequality and police brutality started in 2016 by former 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. With Kaepernick apparently black-balled from the league by NFL owners, it looked like the national anthem saga was going away.

But Trump poured gas back on the fire in September, tweeting that owners should tell any protesting players to “get… off the field right now… he’s fired!” The following weekend, more than 100 players knelt for the anthem, and it became a major talking point again for a couple of months. Anthem protest discussion has since dissipated, but it would just take another Trump tweet or misstep by an owner to ignite the flames once again.

I’m personally not convinced that a lack of patriotism by players has caused the decline in ratings (NASCAR’s ratings were also down this past year, without any anthem protests to speak of), but it certainly hasn’t helped either.

2. Concussions

We may have suspected that football was bad for people’s long-term health in the past, but now we have proof. More reports seem to emerge each day about concussions suffered by former NFL players, many of whom who have gone on to develop other-brain related issues such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

There’s now even more of a guilty pleasure in watching men repeatedly ram their heads together for our entertainment. It may not be enough to alter the moral compass of hard-core football fans, but it just might be turning off enough casual followers to make a difference in ratings.

3. Poor Off-the-Field Behavior

The NFL has suffered more than its share of black eyes in this department over the years, and things didn’t improve in 2017. According to the USA Today’s NFL Player Arrests database (it’s even pretty chilling that such a database exists), 39 players were charged or arrested with crimes in 2017, and six more were thrown in the clink in January 2018.

The league obviously has to clean up in this area, especially in the wake of the Aaron Hernandez murder and Ray Rice domestic abuse cases. Commissioner Roger Goodell came down with a heavy hand on Ezekiel Elliott this year, suspending the Cowboys star for six games following allegations of domestic violence, but the saga of appeals and reinstatements that ensued showed that the owners may not entirely be on board.

4. Overexposure of the League

Not that long ago, the NFL was a Sunday afternoon league, other than prime time games every Sunday and Monday night. The two games we’d see on U.S. Thanksgiving were a special treat, as were the few Saturday evening contests late in the season.

Now, football is on TV nearly half of the days of the week (3 of 7) throughout the season, and when Saturday games are added in the final couple of weeks, it’s even more saturated than that. Not to mention the games that are played overseas in London, giving us several Sundays with football from 9:30 a.m. eastern all the way to midnight.

NFL football used to be a can’t-miss event because of the scarcity of it. Now, fans don’t really mind missing a game on TV because it feels like there will be another one on again in an hour or two.

5. Cord-Cutting and Illegal Streaming

The NFL’s dropping ratings may be inevitable simply because TV numbers are drastically down in general. More and more, people are eliminating their costly cable and satellite bills in favor of streaming games illegally.

It’s impossible to accurately measure how many people are tuning into NFL games via streams found on Reddit or other websites, so maybe viewership of the league isn’t down as drastically as the ratings suggest. It’s still a concern for advertisers paying a premium price to get their products out in front of as many eyeballs as possible, though.

What can the NFL do to increase ratings?

Since there is no clear culprit to blame for the NFL’s ratings drop, there is also no clear solution.

Fortunately for the league however, there are several areas in which I believe some improvements would lead to immediate dividends.

1. Improve Streaming and Distribution Options

Football fans today want exactly what they want, when they want it. It’s on the NFL to meet their needs.

The NFL has made some strides in this area, streaming games on Yahoo, Twitter and Amazon Prime over the past 3 years while providing free access of the NFL Mobile app to Verizon users. But an attempt to provide streaming-only access of out-of-market games to Canadian residents in 2017 went horribly wrong.

Fans who stream games illegally have to put up with feeds that are lower quality and not reliable. If the NFL can roll out a more reliable product that has reasonable fees attached, I believe fans will be happy to jump on board.

2. Borrow From the XFL’s Approach

Vince McMahon’s first attempt at starting a football league may have fell flat on its face, but the guy is still pretty sharp when it comes to business. In announcing his decision to bring the XFL back for 2020, McMahon pointed out several things about his league that will differ from the NFL, and I think the NFL would be wise to pay attention.

Among the things that McMahon believes will help the XFL succeed this time are improving the pace of play, staying out of political discussion and prohibiting the participation of players with criminal records.

The millennial generation is becoming a bigger part of the NFL’s target demographic, so cutting down/shortening commercial breaks and replay reviews to ensure games are completed more quickly could help the NFL regain some of its viewership. People also tune into the NFL to get away from things like politics and crime, so removing those two elements from the conversation as much as possible are also ideal approaches for the NFL.

3. Adopt a ‘Less is More’ Mentality

Supply and demand is a fundamental concept of economics, and the NFL has actually watered down its product by making it too readily available.

Get rid of Thursday Night Football. It’s usually really bad football anyway, since players have hardly any time to recover from their previous game and coaches don’t have enough time to implement anything more than a vanilla game plan. By not having football every Thursday, or at least limiting it to the season opener, Thanksgiving and maybe a couple of games at the end of the season, us viewers will be all the more hungry for kickoff on Sunday afternoon.

4. Re-evaluate Prime Time Strategy

In the past, the NFL has done its absolute best to ensure that every team in the league plays at least one game in prime time.

In fact, 2017 marked the first time in Jacksonville Jaguars team history that the Jags didn’t play in at least one nationally-televised evening game. (Of course, it ended up being the year that the Jaguars actually became good again.) It was also the first time the Cleveland Browns hadn’t played a night game since 2010. Meanwhile, national TV games are limited to five per season, per team (although teams can play a sixth if it’s in Week 17.)

I get why the NFL wants to be fair to its owners and fan bases by giving each team the opportunity for prime-time exposure, but they should be mostly concerned about being fair to their fans, None of us want to see a pair of gawd awful teams slugging it out on national TV in late November.

Limit prime-time matchups for the best teams in the league. If a perennial also-ran plays well enough to deserve a national TV audience, the NFL can use flex scheduling to get them into prime time. At least they’ll have earned it, and we fans will want to watch them.

5. Embrace Sports Betting

The time has come for the NFL to stop pretending that it wants nothing to do with sports betting.

Gambling is why the league is so popular in the first place. How many people will sit down to watch a full afternoon of football without having some action on the point spreads, a fantasy football roster or without even being in a simple office survivor pool? We stay tuned into blowouts in the fourth quarter just to see if the game goes over the total, or to see if the underdog will backdoor their way into covering the spread.

The NBA has dropped the charade and not only admitted that gambling is good for the league, but it’s actually leading the crusade to legalize sports betting in the U.S. Meanwhile, the NFL continues to hide in the shadows, afraid to acknowledge how sports bettors make the league as popular as it is, all the while requiring coaches to give detailed injury reports each week in order to (gasp) inform gamblers and fantasy players.

Conclusion

I don’t think the picture for the future of NFL football is as bleak as these dropping ratings suggest. So much of digital media today is consumed via illegal streaming that these ratings are becoming less and less reliable as a measuring stick of actual public consumption.

However, even those who continue to watch NFL football religiously are starting to grumble a bit about the product. Games are routinely dragging on longer than they should (maybe if the league could finally define what a “catch” is, we wouldn’t be subjected to as many of these long and ridiculous reviews), the quality of the football isn’t consistently strong and we’re exposed to way too much of it. Cleaning up the off-the-field issues and staying out of the political conversation are always things any league should strive for as well.

I also believe that taking a firm pro-gambling stance (heck, the league is moving a franchise to Las Vegas in a couple of years) would be a positive step for the league to take at this point.

Sports bettors have made the NFL the giant that it is.

It’s time for the league to finally make us bettors feel appreciated rather than making us feel like we’re doing something immoral.

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