“Ratings are incredibly healthy right now. We’re seeing increases, particularly on Thursday nights, double-digit increases. This is in light of the fact that obviously networks continue to struggle in primetime and we’re bucking the trend.”
– Roger Goodell, Dec. 2, 2015
I Love Lucy. Gunsmoke. All in the Family. ER. Sunday Night Football. American Idol. The pillars of broadcasting that have dominated the American airwaves in the decades since television was invented. Wait, Sunday Night Football?
The National Football League is a ratings behemoth, its oversized footprint so massive it spans multiple networks with deals worth billions of dollars, yet we hardly mention it when we discuss the biggest shows on television. Football exists on another plane, where the NFL’s primetime shows took three of the top five slots for the 2014-2015 season and two for the 2015-2016 season, where the 2016 Championship Sunday claimed an astonishing 99 million viewers combined for just two games, and where the mother of all television juggernauts that’s nearly an American holiday, the Super Bowl, is a network kingmaker from one season to the next.
And the broadcasts keep getting bigger and more important to both the networks and the NFL. By 2018, it’s expected media rights revenues will finally surpass ticket sales as the NFL’s top moneymaker, with broadcasting rights worth a staggering estimated $40 billion between 2014-2022 and the networks betting heavily the league’s fan base will continue to develop over the next six years. For broadcasters, it’s a matter of survival. If football were off the table, analysis by CNNMoney shows that total viewership for CBS, NBC, and Fox would be down 22 percent overall and down 45 percent for men between the ages of 18 and 49, the coveted sweet spot for advertisers. Case in point: even though Super Bowl 50 ratings were down in 2016, the push was large enough to put CBS ahead of NBC for the 2015-2016 ratings win.
Sports remains one of the last bastions of appointment television, and with the NFL owning 43 of 50 largest U.S. sports audiences in 2015, including 14 of the top 15 slots, it’s no wonder networks continue to grit their teeth and grab their checkbooks every time the rights come up for bidding. Live television audiences don’t fast-forward through commercials; they see promotion for network conglomerates’ other properties – in some cases helping both for a boost, as was the case for ESPN’s 13 percent ratings bump for Monday Night Football this past fall when it premiered a new trailer for another Disney-owned property, a little known franchise called Star Wars. This hasn’t been lost on advertisers, as the networks have reportedly booked more than $2.5 billion in commercial time ahead of the 2016-2017 season.
While people no longer run out to buy new, larger televisions in January when their favorite teams makes the playoffs, the number of fans who prefer the home experience over attending live games continues to grow. The high-definition revolution made games more attractive to watch at home, up close and clear, versus sitting in the the upper deck of the stands, wrapped in 16 blankets, teeth chattering, and disgruntled upon learning the concession stand has run out of hot chocolate by the third quarter. A 1998 ESPN poll said 54 percent of fans preferred being at the game over being at home, but by 2011, that number had dropped to 29 percent.
In addition, consider that cord-cutting is still an anomaly among NFL viewers (though it’s easier than ever to buy the Sunday Ticket package without having cable), and streaming is considered a backup for most football fans, not the primary method of viewing. Last year’s Super Bowl XLIX did set a streaming record at NBC.com with 1.3 million viewers, only a slight uptick from 1.1 million Super Bowl streams in 2014. Both of those numbers were shattered by 3.96 million viewers streaming Super Bowl 50, so it’s not surprising the NFL was able to make a solid $10 million deal for ten Thursday Night Football games with Twitter, even with those games split between CBS and NBC for broadcast television and still being aired on the NFL network.
A joint venture with Yahoo to broadcast the early-morning London game also did well in 2015, but a third of its viewers were from outside of the U.S. Earlier this year, the league announced it was opening up all three London games up to bidding for 2016, and a report from Reuters has both Apple and Google looking into joining the NFL party, but after the deal was struck with Twitter for Thursday Night Football, the league decided against offering the international games up for packaging.
“Sports remains one of the last bastions of appointment television. Live television audiences don’t fast-forward through commercials.”
Despite higher cable rates to offset broadcast rights, staying home to watch football is still cheaper for the average fan, since the cost of attendance has soared with the advent of personal seat licensing and the steep markup on the secondary market. Plus, it’s generally more enjoyable to sit on your couch or at the bar because you have more ways to fill the dead time when there isn’t actually any football being played. With so little game action going on, you couldn’t design a better sport for television, especially modern HD broadcasts. A 2010 WSJ report stated the average amount of time the ball is on the field is a paltry 11 minutes per game, while 56 percent of the game broadcast consists of replays. Even with fewer reviews in 2015, NFL games were still running longer by midseason.
Strangely, this isn’t a bug for fans at home; it’s actually a feature. At home, when there’s “down time” during the game, the broadcast team provides a review of the previous play from multiple alternate angles, as well as instant analysis and reporting before the next play, and if there’s nothing to be said at that moment, the constant barrage of information continues with highlights, injury updates, and scoring from all the other games going on at the same time. In football, there is a continual sense of urgency during television broadcasts that doesn’t exist at the game, where you have no choice but to ride out the lulls between plays and during commercial breaks. You’re forced to endure the music pumped into the stands or spend that time quietly plotting the death of the Steelers fan next to you screaming his head off.
Fans enjoy the home experience so much, teams have gone to great lengths to make stadiums feel more welcoming, boosting wifi signals for those keeping up with multiple games and flashing fantasy football stats on scoreboards. “Viewing lounges” with casual bars showing multiple games — not just the one taking place in the stadium — are also increasing in number. The Jacksonville Jaguars, once scorned for an overabundance of “tarped seats,” have renovated their home to include a high-end pool deck to give EverBank Field more of a party atmosphere. The Rams — who are relocating from St. Louis to Los Angeles next season — say they want their new stadium to cater to fans used to watching multiple games at home, with COO Kevin Demoff describing football in Los Angeles as “a melting pot of NFL fans. You look at the Steelers bars and Redskins bars and Bears bars. You want to take that and put it into your campus and find ways that, at every turn, people can watch other games. L.A.’s become a fantasy-oriented, Red Zone-oriented, DirecTV-oriented culture. And I think our job is to blend that with now having a hometown team, to start to build that allegiance where you walk into the stadium and you never feel that you’re giving up everything else that’s going on Sunday but you still have the Rams right in front of you.”
But even with such improvements, the advantage of watching at home to keep up with our “stories” — and as much as certain ESPN anchors look down their noses at reality TV stars in comparison to athletes, there’s very little difference between the two when it comes to entertainment value — is still substantial. Having a remote in one hand and a tablet in the other means fans can watch while reading the latest on league gossip. And while nearly every fan complained about the level of “Deflategate” coverage during the offseason, it moved the needle and created one of the most anticipated opening kickoff games in years, resulting in an opening weekend of ratings records and outpacing the NBA Finals just weeks before. Even concerns about concussions and the shocking off-field conduct of players like Greg Hardy, Ray Rice, Aaron Hernandez, and, most recently, Johnny Manziel have yet to drag down the overall ratings in any meaningful way. As ESPN’s Jane McManus astutely pointed out, “Drama over [superstar Carolina Panthers quarterback] Cam Newton is a great example of manufactured NFL outrage. Much more fun than actual outrage of Hardy, concussions, labor issues.” Also, given the strong feelings surrounding this election season, some fans may be more emotionally affected when players speak out on societal issues.
“The half-hour of pregame coverage before kickoff would be a top-10 show in its own right.”
The NFL likes to promote its perceived competitive balance and parity, with claims that small market teams have just as much a shot at the Lombardi Trophy as large market teams (e.g. Super Bowl XLIV, when the New Orleans Saints played the Indianapolis Colts), and they get away with this myth building because typical fans look at the game in the microcosm of just one season. What football boasts as a level playing field isn’t entirely accurate, due to the small sample size of NFL games compared to other leagues. Some 5-11 teams beat 10-6 or 12-4 teams, which makes for excitement under an “any given Sunday” guise, but isn’t really parity. Still, this illusion is strong enough and promoted so heavily by producers that many fans believe it themselves, which is why we watch and, most painfully for diehard fans, why we watch with such desperate hope. (Sometimes, it does work out that way; going into Week 13 this season, 28 of the league’s 32 teams were within two games of a playoff spot, making this the most competitive season since 1990.)
This hope feeds into the rest of the ever expanding NFL television cycle. Fans are now so accustomed to following football from the combine through the draft, the demand has created an entirely new primetime event with three more days of coverage that grows larger every year. Even the preseason games — the bane of season ticket holders who have to pay full price for games they don’t necessarily want to buy into — have seen increased ratings over the past few years as casual fans delve deeper into the madness of fantasy football stats and staying on top of a game that consumes everyone’s time beyond what anyone imagined just a decade ago.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football ratings for 2015-2016 were highest for a primetime NFL package in sixteen years. If you were to break off just the half-hour of pregame coverage before kickoff — the boring part where people sit around and guess what’s going to happen over the next couple of hours — it would be a top-10 show in its own right. And how important is football to CBS? While ratings are down for its marquee shows The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, and The Good Wife for this season, the network is just about even overall on the strength of just eight Thursday Night Football broadcasts and the weekly bleed-over of Sunday afternoon games being watched during 60 Minutes‘ time slot. What makes the growth of CBS’ Thursday Night Football even more impressive is that, even though its a shared simulcast with the NFL Network, who carries the games all season, three of those eight weeks the NFL Network also had highest rated and most watched show on cable with the exact same broadcast. The same game, on two channels, earning the highest ratings in their respective categories. That’s no ordinary double-dip; that’s Roger Goodell at the tailgate dunking gilded wings in both the ranch and the guacamole.
Even while ratings are down for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, the broadcast was still the biggest show on Monday nights in key demographics for 15 out of 16 weeks of the season. Unlike the dominant Sunday Night Football on NBC, ESPN does not have the luxury of “flexing” scheduled games for more desirable match-ups as the season goes on and is at the mercy of the scheduling committee: a team of 136 computers, four NFL executives, rules that state each team must play each other every four years, and, we’re guessing, a battered Magic 8 Ball and a bottle of scotch. Which is a long way to say scheduling isn’t perfect.
“Broadcast television would wither without the NFL; the NFL has become unbelievably wealthy and powerful because of television; and they still desperately, desperately need each other.”
What makes this especially frightening if you’re an ESPN executive is that you’re locked into a $15.2 billion deal until 2021 that, by some accounting, has you paying four times what other networks are paying per viewer. The network makes up some of this money in carriage fees, but this has lead to an increasing number of cord-cutters (a group that is generally not comprised of sports fans) and the birth of “skinny bundles,” cable packages that don’t include ESPN and other higher-priced basic cable offerings. According to Nielsen estimates, ESPN has lost nearly 8.5 million homes over the past four and half years, a rate of decline that is faster than the rest of the industry, meaning fewer non-sports fans are subsidizing the cost of a cacophony of talking heads, including Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden and his reported $6.5 million salary, a number generally reserved for sitcom stars who are gifted Porsches as their signing bonus.
It is also equally important to note that the NFL is still, well, live. If there is anything to be taken away this year, it’s that even the slightest tape-delay will turn off viewers, as NBC saw its ratings for the 2016 Rio Olympics take a 15 percent dive from the 2012 London Summer Games. The carnage was so great, blame was spread across online streaming, political controversies, and the poor beleaguered Millennials who simply did not watch. (Considering Millennials are less likely to own a television, this shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.)
And if we’re being completely honest about the ratings game, yes, NBC, Fox, and CBS are paying less per viewer for football than ESPN, but having the top-rated show in 2015 isn’t the same as having the top-rated show in 1995, or even 2005 for that matter. You’re still 10 points down from 20 years ago and five points off a decade ago. In this time we’ve seen the National Football League go from waiving the blackout rules in some markets to completely lifting their regional blackout rules altogether to increase viewership in the past year. Doing so hardly hurt attendance as the league saw only a half a percent drop at the gate, and fans now barely notice the tarped-off sections of seating in smaller markets like Oakland in an effort to capture more eyeballs on television.
So why do broadcasters continue to pay top dollar for the National Football League when, in some cases, they’re bleeding subscribers? And why is the league willing to loosen blackout rules so draconian that teams used to be forced to buy their own tickets to ensure their local fans could watch the games on television? Put simply, broadcast television would wither without the NFL; the NFL has become unbelievably wealthy and powerful because of television; and they still desperately, desperately need each other. Maddie Hayes and David Addison, Scully and Mulder, Cersei Lannister and her next glass of wine all need each other.
Follow Sarah Sprague on Twitter: @Sarah_Sprague