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Is There Too Much Football?

The NFL’s ratings problem is an election problem. It’s a changing-technology and viewer-habits problem. Amazingly, it’s even a baseball-playoffs problem. But most distressingly for the league, it’s also an oversaturation problem.

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

You’ve probably heard a lot about the NFL’s “ratings problem,” but that’s a relative term. The NHL would love to be facing football’s current struggle. A perilously low Sunday Night Football rating would still be the most-viewed television program of the night. Saying that the NFL has a ratings problem would be like stressing out if the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie made $500 million instead of $770 million, or if Justin Bieber dipped from 88 million Twitter followers to a cool 75 mil. At that level, the afflicted party can usually afford a hit.

Still, even within that it’s-all-gravy context, what’s happened to the NFL’s ratings in 2016 has been stunning. The Wall Street Journal once dubbed the NFL “The League That Runs TV” — and executives enjoyed that label so much that there are framed copies of the print version in offices around the league. In the fall of 2014, 28 of the top 30 programs on television were NFL games. During the entire 2015 season, the NFL owned the top 25 programs and 46 of the top 50. For years, when the NFL was on, it was virtually the only thing Americans watched en masse.

Now? Sunday night’s Colts-Texans game drew just 12.9 million viewers, a 38 percent drop from last year’s Week 6 Sunday night contest between the Patriots and Colts and a low enough mark to make it the least-watched Sunday Night Football game since 2011. But this isn’t a one-off concern; it’s becoming commonplace. Some of the dips are understandable and may have even been unavoidable: On September 26, for example, the Falcons-Saints Monday Night Football matchup aired opposite the first presidential debate and drew just 8 million people. October 10’s Bucs-Panthers game, however, wasn’t up against any debate, yet it was the worst-ever Week 5 Monday-night game airing on ESPN.

Be it Thursday, Sunday, or Monday, every prime-time window is down double-digit percentage points on average this season compared with last year. Declining ratings have become such an unignorable story line that Monday Night Football broadcaster Sean McDonough mentioned them while criticizing officials for throwing too many flags during this Monday’s Jets-Cardinals game. “If we’re looking for reasons why TV ratings for the NFL are down all over the place, this doesn’t help,” McDonough said. “The way this game has been officiated is not something anybody wants to watch.”

Other excuses abound: “This election is unprecedented,” said Amy Trask, former Raiders CEO and current analyst at CBS Sports, offering up what’s become a common explanation. But the election, while undeniably relevant and forceful, can’t explain away the entire dip. Technology and viewer habits have also changed, with 1.4 million people ditching cable from 2015 to 2016 as streaming services like Netflix, which added 3.6 million subscriptions last quarter, steal eyes and the younger generation grows increasingly uninterested in traditional television. Yet, believe it or not, the baseball playoffs are up. The NFL’s real culprit may be oversaturation: Amid the league’s budding ratings crisis, it’s possible that there’s just too much football on TV.

As any football viewer or fantasy-lineup-setter knows, the NFL week is divided into distinct windows: Multiple games (distributed to specific regions) air simultaneously in the 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET slates, while Thursday, Sunday, and Monday evenings each house one national game.

In recent years, the NFL has introduced a regular Thursday broadcast as a way to boost the profitability of the NFL Network (2006); instituted a doubleheader on the first Monday night of the season (2006); and added a few early-morning games per season in London to build the international audience (first introducing the games in 2007, then shifting to the 9:30 EST broadcast in 2014), leading to an explosion of instances in which just one game is on at a time.

That’s when the trouble starts. Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports executive vice president of research, league operations, and strategy, said the 1 and 4 p.m. windows for Fox and CBS are almost flat, but windows in which just one game is shown nationally have seen a major decline. In addition, he said, while the same number of people are tuning into games with the same regularity, they are doing so for less time. Game ratings are calculated based on the average number of viewers at each minute of the game, rather than by the total amount of people who tuned in, which is why fans tuning out early can hurt a rating. Through five weeks this season, Mulvihill said, the average NFL fan who tuned in for a game watched 85 minutes of it, five minutes less than than last year’s average. While conceding that the attention-demanding election plays a part, Mulvihill also offered another explanation, chalking up some of the blame to the league’s current lack of stars, a phenomenon that’s made it increasingly difficult to fill the ever-expanding national slots with truly marquee games.

“We’ve added Thursday windows, we’ve added Monday-night doubleheaders,” Mulvihill said. “When you had Peyton Manning and Tony Romo and Tom Brady, it was a little easier to populate those additional windows. We didn’t see that impact last year or the year before, but maybe it’s caught up with us a little bit.”

The issue, he said, is that the fluidity that keeps the daytime windows fresh doesn’t extend to the evening hours. Fox and CBS, which localize the games by sending matchups to the markets that want them (for instance, the Eagles to Philadelphia or the Dolphins to Miami — whether fans in Florida like it or not), can easily shift away from distributing a game to a large chunk of the nation if the matchup becomes less appealing due to injury or poor recent play. “The prime-time windows are a lot more vulnerable,” Mulvihill said. “We think of the NFL as being impervious to circumstance, that it’s going to be strong no matter what, but I think if any sport is without its two biggest stars for the first month of the season and the most important player from most popular team [Romo], that has to matter, right?”

Of course, the absence of marketable stars like Romo or Brady (who missed four weeks to suspension, as you might have heard) is amplified during one-game, prime-time windows. Those ever-expanding windows weren’t always a part of a sport that was long obsessed with scarcity, however. While it may have been impossible to predict injuries and regressions for big NFL stars, it’s easy to identify the cause of the sport’s excessive television expansion: the hunt for more revenue.

Roger Goodell has stated that he wants $25 billion in revenue by 2027. And while revenue has risen sharply during his tenure, there’s still a ways to go: Last year the league took in $13 billion, and the quickest way to nearly double that is to get more revenue from TV contracts. The majority of NFL games were sold off in 2011 (through 2022) for a total of nearly $28 billion. ESPN alone pays more than $100 million per Monday Night Football game. The league sold Yahoo a 9:30 a.m. ET stream from London last season. For the first time this season, it also divided the Thursday-night package among three different channels: NFL Network, CBS, and NBC. The NFL also began streaming the Thursday game on Twitter. The league has even distributed the Red Zone channel, a favorite of fantasy football players that cycles through scoring action across games, to cable instead of keeping it exclusive to DirecTV. Amid a thirst for more revenue, the product is now everywhere.

The league initially resisted such a reality, said Frank Hawkins, who helped negotiate TV deals until 2008 as senior vice president of business affairs and head of strategic planning for the NFL’s media group. “Each game was an event,” said Hawkins, who spent 15 years with the NFL. “Because there’s relatively little inventory, if you like football at all, you cleared your Sundays to watch it. That was the whole rationale. You had a whole week of promotional time, most of it free in the media, driving the viewership into a few concentrated windows. That’s why scarcity was such a value.”

Despite understanding that scarcity was part of the appeal, the NFL kept growing, simultaneously turning itself into what long appeared to be an unstoppable TV powerhouse and undermining its own value. After horrendous scandals failed to stifle ratings, after replacement referees and even replacement players barely caused a drop-off, the sheer scope of this season’s offerings has shown that the product isn’t bulletproof.

In 1985, football and baseball boasted virtually identical levels of popularity. The Harris Poll, which since that year has asked Americans what their single favorite sport is, found that 24 percent of fans preferred football that year, while 23 percent preferred baseball. By 1989, something unusual began to happen: Football opened up a 26–19 percent advantage, and by 1997, it had a double-digit lead. In 2003, the number of people who called football their favorite sport was more than double the number who said baseball was. And it got more imbalanced from there, peaking in 2011, when 36 percent chose football and just 13 chose baseball.

That steadily growing gulf is both staggering and completely explicable. Michael MacCambridge, author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, a book about the NFL’s rise to sporting superpower, said the change can be traced in large part to the way fans started getting their sports in the mid-’80s.

“One [factor] that isn’t mentioned very often is the growth of cable TV, specifically ESPN,” MacCambridge said. “Suddenly, video was readily available, and you had the ability to see highlights of each and every game later on Sunday. That just wasn’t possible in the decade of the ’70s.”

This technological advancement led to consumer habits changing dramatically, as the sport became more accessible than ever. For instance, when ESPN first broadcast the NFL draft in 1980, it helped football become a sport fans could follow year-round. As tech and viewing habits change dramatically today, it’s important not to lose sight of this history: A past shift favored the NFL, but there’s no guarantee that the next one will.

MacCambridge wonders if the enhanced tech has coupled with the swelling offerings to lessen the league’s standing as appointment viewing. Not only is it harder to watch every game start to finish now that more games are available to the average fan, he said, it’s also harder to track who’s watching at all: If someone wants to go outside and enjoy a Sunday, he or she can easily follow the game on a mobile device. That’s user-friendly, but it wouldn’t be reflected in traditional TV ratings, especially if fans track a Sunday game via nonstreaming means like box scores or social platforms, which can’t be measured by the league at all. Not surprisingly, the tentacles of this downward trend have made their way into the league’s other programming as well. It’s not just live events: NFL studio shows’ ratings are also down.

Mulvihill said that in this changing world, he’s found himself wondering what the postelection ratings will look like. “The election is over after Week 9,” he said. “We have a gigantic game on Week 10, Dallas-Pittsburgh. Are we going to see the type of number for Dallas-Pittsburgh that we would have expected if this was a normal year?”

He’s not so sure: “I don’t know that we will. I think we’ll see some normalization, I think we will see things get back to what we expect, but does it all snap back to what we consider normal in a week? Is it going to be ‘People vote on a Tuesday then watch football on a Sunday’? I don’t know if it’s that much of a straight line.”

For the first time in a long time, the NFL is nervously waiting to find out.