As the NFL season gets set to kick off, Kantar Media Chief Research Officer Jon Swallen is expecting another banner year in terms of TV ad revenue despite last year's ratings declines in prime time and lingering concerns about everything from oversaturation to player conduct and concussions.
Last year, ratings dipped significantly in prime time, though the late-afternoon games on Sundays managed single-digit increases over 2015 levels. "Even with that ratings correction, it’s one of the largest and most reliable pieces of programming out there, so I expect that NFL revenue will increase," Swallen told FierceBroadcasting.
According to Kantar, total media spending on the NFL reached $4.22 billion in 2016, up 22% from $3.45 billion in 2014. Swallen declined to project an exact number for 2017, but said the pattern for the league is falling in line with the upfront ad market for broadcast networks, which has shown increases despite overall ratings erosion.
That disconnect is “part of the perversity of broadcast television,” he said. “People wonder, if ratings are getting smaller, how can ad revenues rise? It seems illogical. But the fact is that audiences are shrinking across the board. So advertisers are attracted to the NFL because of its consistency." The male skew, with regular season games drawing an audience that is 60% male, also offers a predictable platform.
A host of theories have emerged to explain the recent dips in football viewership. They range from public dismay at players kneeling during the national anthem to players' off-field misconduct to heightened awareness of concussions to the rise of rival hard-hitting sports like the UFC.
Far more serious than any of those, Swallen says, is "the land-grab that the NFL has attempted by continually trying to expand their distribution." The league has launched a regular Twitter show and will stream Thursday night games on Amazon. It also has focused on building out the Thursday Night Football franchise over protests that the games are of questionable quality and simply add one more dish to an already overstuffed buffet table. "It's a smart business move," Swallen says. "But there’s an argument that it leads to oversaturation and leads to viewers thinking the NFL is something less special, even grating. They think, ‘Ugh, more football?!’"
Swallen dismisses concerns about the ad market generally, which has seen turbulence this month as media buyers reexamine their mix of digital and linear TV investment. Some, including consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble, are pulling back from ads in general and seeing no ill effects at retail.
"You have to consider the composition of advertisers attracted to football," he says. "P&G doesn’t spend money there." Three main verticals—automotive, telecom and financial services—account for roughly half of all football spending and show no signs of retreat.