Concerns continue to mount that the NFL has saturated its market and is no longer the cash cow for broadcasters that it once was. A new report from Wall Street research firm Barclays found that viewership in the NFL’s second week of games was down 4% compared with last year. “While some teams like the Cowboys continue to draw healthy growth, 9 out of 13 games saw declines,” the firm wrote in a report issued this morning.
“Trends thus far in 2017 have been anemic,” Barclays added.
Those results are particularly concerning considering last year’s NFL ratings were already down about 8% over 2015. However, last year’s NFL season was up against the presidential election.
To counter its declines, the NFL made a number of changes this year including to its game schedule and its ad load, reducing ad breaks to four per quarter instead of five or six. “As of now, these tweaks don't seem to be having a material impact on trends,” Barclays noted.
“If these trendlines sustain for the rest of the season, it will be tough to argue that football viewership is not saturated,” the analysts at Barclays wrote. “This also comes at a time when internet companies are increasingly bidding for sports rights. While the implicit assumption at this point seems to be that the viewership on these newer platforms will be marginal at best and incremental for the sport, this is far from clear. Amazon's carriage of TNF [Thursday Night Football] is likely to be viewed as an important data point and could be a near term catalyst for broadcasters.”
The NFL’s season this year got off to a sluggish start, with its ratings down from 2016 for the season opening Thursday night matchup between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. Coverage of Hurricane Irma may have had an impact on this season’s opening weekend, however.
Barclays’ findings dovetail with a separate report from Guggenheim Securities analyst Michael Morris and noted by The Hollywood Reporter. Morris estimated that CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC will generate roughly $2.5 billion in NFL advertising revenue this season—but that a 10% shortfall in viewership could result in a $200 million cut in those earnings.
Indeed, as THR noted, shares of broadcasters including NBC parent Comcast, ESPN parent Disney, and CBS have declined by single digits during the past two weeks. Shares of 21st Century Fox are up slightly, though.
In a bright spot, Fox’s viewership for its Cowboys versus Denver Broncos game Sunday was up 22%, according to Barclays, with 26 million viewers.
Interestingly, Barclays also reported that the Emmys award ceremony, hosted by Stephen Colbert on CBS, had 11.4 million viewers, in line with last year but still the second least-watched show in history behind 2016’s broadcast.