Midweek Musings: Let’s Talk NFL Ratings

Kevin Clark wrote an article at The Ringer exploring the issues with the decline in NFL prime time ratings. I’ll let you read the article but Clark raises the question as to whether or not there may be oversaturation of NFL games.

I wanted to expand on a few of his points and make some suggestions that might help the NFL in following a smarter path to potential revenue growth, rather than assuming the traditional route it has taken will keep working.

And while it’s easy to say that the 2016 Presidential election has drawn away viewers, that doesn’t explain the decline in prime time ratings by itself. As Clark notes, while the Sept. 26 Monday Night Football game between the Falcons and Saints drew low ratings going against the Presidential debate, the Oct. 10 Bucs-Panthers game drew low ratings, too, and there was no Presidential debate that night.

No, I don’t think people are tuning into 24-7 news just to see every development about the latest Donald Trump controversial remark or analysis of a Hillary Clinton email. I believe there is more to the ratings decline than the election. Clark goes over a few reasons, but I want to talk about other reasons, too, and with further explanation of some of Clark’s points.

First, it’s true many people like football because it’s the ultimate team sport, but that applies to the hardcore football fan. Casual viewers don’t care about that; they see football as entertainment. And in any form of entertainment, it’s superstars and compelling storylines that draw people in. In the NFL’s case, it’s players that transcend the game and storylines such as arch rivalries, championship dynasties and the pursuit of records.

There was a time when baseball led football in popularity. But the time football started to rise in popularity was around the time Pete Rozelle took over as NFL commissioner. His efforts to get the NFL-AFL merger together brought new concepts for how games would be scheduled. What came to be known as the Super Bowl injected a new rivalry and the scheduling of games meant the AFC and NFC teams met just enough during the regular season to keep viewers interested. Monday Night Football was the first regular foray by the NFL into prime time and it was known as much for its commentators as it was for the games themselves.

Then there were the owners who understood how to build successful franchises and market them, such as Tex Schramm and Al Davis. When the Super Bowl era started, the NFL was fortunate to have a dynasty in its early years, the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings making frequent playoff trips. And then came the 1980s, in which Bill Walsh and Joe Montana showed how much excitement the passing game could deliver, especially after Jerry Rice came along.

Rozelle and his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, saw enough about the popularity of the passing game to promote it, which led to rule changes that made it more prominent. By this time, as the league entered the 1990s, it entered a period of labor peace, something that Major League Baseball did not have. MLB arguably lost the battle for most popular sport in the United States when a labor dispute resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Though MLB regained fans thanks to home run record setters, that goodwill dissipated when those chasing the records were linked to PEDs. The MLB’s mistakes did as much to allow the NFL to become No. 1 as much as the things the NFL did well.

The NFL was also fortunate to find a major quarterback rivalry in Peyton Manning and Tom Braady, thanks to the realignment of teams which ensured that first-place teams in each conference would always face each other each season. Enough other quarterbacks rose to prominence (Tony Romo, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger) to ensure the NFL’s popularity remained high.

Now, with all this said, there are some elements that can result in a downturn in viewership and popularity, though most of them won’t affect the NFL to a large degree. Let’s get to the things that can affect popularity but don’t mean the NFL is dealt a heavy blow.

* Lack of superstar players: When any league goes through a period in which there isn’t enough superstar players that transcend the sport, fewer casual viewers tune in. Currently, the NFL still has Tom Brady, though who knows how much longer he’ll play. Tony Romo appears to be nearing the end of his career. Ben Roethlisberger is often hurt. Aaron Rodgers isn’t playing as well as he used to. And potential quarterbacks who could step into their spots aren’t all in the best situations. Russell Wilson is in a good position but some fans might think the Seattle defense deserves more credit. Andrew Luck and Cam Newton have had their moments but it’s becoming clearer their teams aren’t doing the best job building around them. The jury is still out on QBs such as Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, though the NFL certainly hopes both will find success. But given that we are entering a dry period of superstars transcending the game, there may be a slight drop in popularity.

* Lack of popular rivalries: The rivalries between teams will always be there but those are loved by the hardcore fan. The casual fan wants to see a rivalry that’s always going to be fun to watch and really wants a superstar headlining them. The Patriots and Broncos seems to be one that could fit the bill, but given that Peyton Manning recently played for the Broncos, it may take time before casual fans find a reason to keep watching now that Manning vs. Brady is over. And while getting a new rival for Brady would seem to be a priority, the NFL would much rather have a rivalry between two younger QBs to drive casual fan interest.

* Lack of quality games: This is probably the biggest reason for the decline. If casual fan perception is that the prime time football games are mostly bad games, they are less inclined to tune in. Thursday Night Football might be the best example as most of the games have seen sloppy play. Sunday Night Football can benefit from flexing late-season games, but NBC doesn’t get to flex every single week. And Monday Night Football hasn’t had a lot of compelling matchups in recent years.

None of these factors mean the NFL is doomed. While there may be enough of a decline for the NFL to take notice, it doesn’t need to act like its future is in jeopardy.

So what does the NFL need to do? Before we get to that, let’s look at factors that could lead to a sharp decline in viewership and keep the NFL from increasing its revenues.

* Labor dispute leading to a shortened season or the lack of a Super Bowl. On one hand, if this were to happen, it would have the biggest impact. Any NFL labor dispute that meant no Super Bowl would send away fans in droves. On the other hand, the chances of that happening are extremely small – in fact, I’d say the chances are less than 1 percent. The labor agreement isn’t set to expire until after the 2020 season concludes and, as long as the NFL avoids the repeated labor disputes that affected MLB in the 1990s, the Super Bowl should never be cancelled for that reason.

Now, it’s possible that a labor dispute could run into a season, as once happened with the NBA. Or it could lead to an entire season off the books, as happened with the NHL. However, the long offseason the NFL has gives owners and players plenty of time to work out agreements. Plus, both sides are mindful of the impact a prolonged dispute will have and will do what they can to avoid it. I wouldn’t put the chances of this happening at less than 1 percent, but it’s small enough that it’s unlikely to happen. (If you want me to put it at a percentage, I’d go no higher than 3 percent.) All the NFL needs to do to avoid it is make sure any future CBA negotiations go as smoothly as possible.

* Major scandal which impacts a popular element. We saw this happen in MLB, in which people chasing home run records were taking PEDs and some fans thought those records were shams. However, it’s important to remember that MLB didn’t have a comprehensive testing process in place for PEDs. The NFL has one, albeit a flawed one, so it would mitigate the potential impact of a scandal in which NFL players who were chasing touchdown records were all accused of PED usage. This one is possible but not likely to happen, as long as the NFL remains conscious of the need to re-evaluate its testing procedures.

* Haphazard scheduling and expansion. This is the big one. If the NFL goes overboard with adding franchises, the product will become diluted. If it adds too many days on which games are played, not only could fans suffer burnout but players and coaches will be more vociferous about the impact on teams and how well they can prepare for games.

It’s one thing for the NFL to want a franchise in Los Angeles and there’s an argument for adding a second one, but it should only happen if one moves there to join the Rams. If/when that happens, the NFL can consider, in the future, franchises moving to markets in which there’s a better chance of drawing new fans, but the last thing it should do at this point is add new teams. All you have to do is look at how many teams have mediocre quarterback play to know there are only so many quality QBs to go around. And given that it’s the QBs who sell the most tickets, too many teams with subpar QB play aren’t going to keep fans interested.

As far as nights on which football is played, there really isn’t anything that distinguishes each NFL game as a unique experience. Monday Night Football was compelling because of the antics of the commentators. When that disappeared and Sunday Night Football came along, MNF was no longer unique. The pre-game shows all resemble one another and what made MNF special now seems commonplace. Adding games on more nights may mean a little more revenue, but it means the product is further diluted.

And while the NFL seems to think there’s no limit to its international expansion, it must remember that a country like England will find football as a fun experience once in a while, but if it’s around all the time, its appeal may not last if the fans only see subpar outings. The NFL should forget about trying to get a permanent franchise in London, even if it’s through moving a current franchise there, because there is no evidence that the people of London are clamoring to have their own franchise and see the NFL as more than something to check out once in a while.

* Failure to capitalize on new methods for viewers to watch content. And this is the other big one. As Clark notes, there is no way to measure how many NFL fans are watching games via a mobile device. As streaming online content becomes a more viable option, traditional methods of delivery could see more declines. Cord cutters aren’t limited to cable; they are ditching satellite companies, too. So the NFL needs to pay close attention to how viewer patterns shift and figure out how to determine how many prefer to watch programs online without the constraints of a broadcast or cable network. It will need to remember that it can’t just up the prices on the contracts they sign and needs to consider how any company can engage in multiple ways to reach viewers.

It’s the last two points that the NFL needs to keep in mind if it wants to ensure it doesn’t see a massive dip in its revenues. To that end, my suggestion to the NFL is to not fall into the trap of “we have always done it this way.” It needs to think outside the box and focus on working smarter, rather than harder, to increase revenue. Here are a few suggestions.

* A smart expansion of the season to 18 weeks with two bye weeks, in which Thursday night games are revamped and made more attractive. My suggestion would be to keep Week 1 as it is with a Thursday opener, have no Thursday game Week 2 but have Thursday games Weeks 3 through 18. Four teams would go on a bye week starting in Week 2, two teams each in two divisions. Two of the teams coming off that bye week would then play in a Thursday night game. This allows those teams more days to rest up for Thursday games and avoids the short weeks. Here is an example of how it would look:

Week 1: No byes, Thursday night opener
Week 2: Buffalo, Miami, Dallas, New York Giants, no Thursday games
Week 3: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit (Thursday, Dallas vs. New York Giants)
Week 4: Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Carolina (Thursday, Chicago vs. Detroit)
Week 5: Denver, Kansas City, Arizona, Los Angeles (Thursday: Houston vs. Indianapolis)
Week 6: New England, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Washington (Thursday: Arizona vs. Los Angeles)
Week 7: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Minnesota (Thursday: New England vs. New York Jets)
Week 8: Jacksonville, Tennessee, New Orleans, Tampa Bay (Thursday: Green Bay vs. Minnesota)
Week 9: Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle (Thursday: Jacksonville vs. Tennessee)
Week 10: Buffalo, Miami, Dallas, New York Giants (Thursday: San Francisco vs. Seattle)
Week 11: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit (Thursday: Buffalo vs. Miami)
Week 12: Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Carolina (Thursday: Baltimore vs. Cincinnati)
Week 13: Denver, Kansas City, Arizona, Los Angeles (Thursday: Atlanta vs. Carolina)
Week 14: New England, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Washington (Thursday: Denver vs. Kansas City)
Week 15: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Minnesota (Thursday: Philadelphia vs. Washington)
Week 16: Jacksonville, Tennessee, New Orleans, Tampa Bay (Thursday: Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh)
Week 17: Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco Seattle (Thursday: New Orleans vs. Tampa Bay)
Week 18: No byes (Thursday: Oakland vs. San Diego)

To ensure teams aren’t always stuck with a Week 2 bye each year, the byes would be rotated each year. There is the issue of what would be done with Thanksgiving games that Dallas and Detroit host each year, though, but some slight adjustments to the schedule might allow those teams and their Thanksgiving game opponents to be accommodated. Every effort should be made to ensure that the Cowboys and Lions don’t keep playing the same opponents each year on Thanksgiving, too.

I would start with my above example as the baseline and adjust it as needed, but ensure that all teams get one bye week in the first half (Weeks 2 through 9) and one bye week in the second half (Weeks 10 through 17) but with a minimum of, say, four weeks in between those byes.

By adding an extra week to the regular season through the second bye week for every team, the NFL can add a little more revenue to its deals and see if Thursday games become a better experience with teams having a chance to rest up for a longer period before them. And making those games division rivalries might help spur interest, too.

* Make sure any future deals negotiated account for potential means of delivering content online. DirecTV may think Sunday Ticket will ensure it always gets subscribers, but there’s no guarantee that will be enough to keep people from cutting ties with DirecTV. The NFL should be aware of this and request any satellite and cable companies wanting an NFL package offer a means of getting the package online, allowing people to view games through a variety of devices. It should also keep working with the networks to determine ways to reach more viewers through online broadcasts.

In the meantime, it needs to find ways to monitor online and mobile device viewership so it can get a good idea about where viewers are going. That allows the NFL to deliver the best possible experience for fans while maximizing its potential revenues. And it should resist attempts to stick with what worked in past years, because there’s no guarantee it will keep working. Forward thinking will do a better job of ensuring revenue growth than sticking with previous approaches and merely adding to them.

* Revisit the NFL rules about celebrations. It’s one thing to avoid obscene gestures, lengthy dance numbers and any celebration that could injure players or damage equipment. But the NFL has been inconsistent with its rulings on celebrations for some time and easing up on them might add entertainment value that keeps more casual fans around. Who cares how Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders celebrate a TD, as long as it’s not obscene or involves an intricately choreographed number with teammates. If they just drop to their knees to do a somersault, don’t worry about it. (And, yes, that means changing the rule that says you can’t go down to a knee to celebrate a TD.)

On this subject, it might help for the NFL to revisit its rules so the game doesn’t drag out for too long or go overboard on enforcing them. That’s not to say we want referees to ignore holding or dirty hits, but we need to be smarter in terms of how the game is called. Simplifying the rulebook and not weighing referees down with so many things to look for could help reduce the number of flags, something which can cause fans to tune out of a game.

* Keep in mind that there will always be periods in which viewership may decline and learn to ride them out, especially when the number of superstar players may be in decline and new ones haven’t risen up through the ranks. The NFL needs to be patient and allow for those new superstars to come about and not try to force issues. Businesses that learn to ride out slow periods but find ways to reach new customers, while understanding there are some elements the business has no control over, are the businesses that keep their revenues up the most. A business that panics at the first sign of a slight decline does things that accelerate the decline. The worst thing the NFL can do is panic or make a rash decision in response to a slight decline in viewership, because panicking will do more harm than good.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.