Editor’s Corner—With the NFL season kicking off, a ratings rebound is the key to victory

The NFL is still the hands-down ratings champ and the big ad revenue driver for broadcasters. But last year’s ratings decline showed that even the mighty NFL can be vulnerable.

On the eve of the 2017-2018 NFL season, it’s crunch time for a league that watched its ratings fumble one year ago. Can the NFL recover and future-proof itself against a continually eroding linear television ecosystem where even the most popular programs no longer seem immune to declining viewership?

“The challenge for the league now is to recalibrate expectations for audience growth, be proactive reclaiming the TV ratings narrative, and reassert the NFL’s value in the television marketplace and content landscape,” Kathy Connors, principal and founder of KMC Consulting, told Sports Business Daily.

Last season, the collective ratings for NFL broadcasters fell 8%. Reasons offered for the precipitous drop varied. A J.D. Power poll of 9,200 people found that 26% of respondents who said they watched fewer games in 2016 did so because of National Anthem protests by players. Other top responses in the survey include ditching out on more games because of off-field issues including domestic violence, excessive game delays, too many ads, cord cutting and the 2016 Presidential election.

With the election over, the NFL can avoid dealing with at least one of those issues. And it’s taking steps to address other issues on the list.

NFL tweaks and changes this year

In March, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that games would have fewer commercial breaks, though ad loads would not be reduced.

“Together with our broadcast partners, we will be working to meaningfully reduce down time and the frequency of commercial breaks in our game. We will also be giving our broadcast partners increased flexibility to avoid untimely breaks in the action. For example, we know how annoying it is when we come back from a commercial break, kick off, and then cut to a commercial again. I hate that too. Our goal is to eliminate it,” Goodell wrote.

NFL is also taking to speed up play during games, including using a play clock following the extra point and letting referees use a tablet on the field for replay reviews rather than having to use a fixed sideline monitor.

The NFL is also continuing to work on getting its content in front of viewers who have migrated away from traditional pay TV. This season, Amazon Prime members will get access to 11 live NFL games (10 Thursday night games and a Christmas Day game) and the NFL will also begin a multiyear live programming deal—including a 30-minute live digital show that will air five days per week—with Twitter.

"We have every expectation that the new daily live show, produced by NFL Network and featuring some of our top analysts, will quickly become some of the most popular programming on Twitter," said Brian Rolapp, chief media and business officer for the NFL, in a statement.

In addition, the NFL continues to look outside the U.S. in an attempt to build more of an international audience. Recently, the league signed a distribution deal with China SVOD Tencent.

The NFL is also revamping its digital properties to make them easier to navigate for fans looking for live games online.

“What you’ll see as we go into the season is an effort to streamline that access, to make it easier for fans to find and to watch our live games,” said Jennifer Leung, director of product for NFL Digital Media.

Expectations for the season are mixed

The work the NFL has been doing to offset viewership declines and restore ratings for this season have some expecting a rebound. Analyst firm Barclays is predicting NFL ratings could be an important catalyst for broadcasters this year and is citing viewership increases for pre-season games (up 5% over last season) as evidence that viewers will flock back.

MoffettNathanson said the NFL’s 2017 primetime schedule has “materially improved” and should help foster ratings growth for NBC’s Sunday Night Football (expected to be up 5%) and ESPN’s Monday Night Football (expected to be up 11%).

“Based on pre-season power rankings, both [Monday Night Football] and [Sunday Night Football] are scheduled to have historically more competitive match-ups in 2017,” wrote MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson, warning though that those predictions could change as the season plays out and rankings are recalculated.

But projected ad ratings tell a somewhat more pessimistic tale. According to Variety, projections for broadcast network TV for the 2017-2018 season estimate that fewer people will watch commercials during Sunday Night Football on NBC and Thursday Night Football, split between NBC and CBS.

Opinions are mixed on whether the NFL can bounce back this season. Not having to compete with a contentious presidential election certainly should help—ratings last season rose after the election—but it’s also possible that the NFL’s continued saturation of the market is devaluing the core product of broadcast TV games. Analysts like Nathanson note that the addition of Thursday Night Football games has clearly taken on toll on the quality of matchups elsewhere during the week, particularly during Monday Night Football.

To be clear, the NFL is still the hands-down ratings champ and the big ad revenue driver for broadcasters. But last year’s ratings decline showed that even the mighty NFL can be vulnerable to temperamental audiences and, moreover, validated the steady erosion of linear television viewership. - Ben | @fiercebrdcstng