Professional football is the most popular sport in the US, with over three quarters of adults claiming to be fans, according to marketing to sports fans report. However, television ratings for NFL games declined 6% this past season, with much discussion on potential causes, such as competition from the televised presidential debates, backlash from concussion scandals and players’ political activism, and the absence of superstars Peyton Manning (now retired) and Tom Brady (who missed the beginning of the season due to suspension). The exciting MLB post-season, excessive commercial breaks and non-competitive match-ups are also some of the reasons ratings may have dipped.

In addition to these challenges, consumers simply aren’t watching television the way they used to. Instead of being limited to television sets, Americans today are watching on laptops, tablets and smartphones. With the availability of content online, many younger consumers are choosing to forgo traditional cable packages altogether in favor of subscription services, such as Netflix and HBO GO.

Although the NFL has made some games available online, with 10 Thursday Night Football games available via Twitter in 2016, full coverage of out-of-market games still requires a cable subscription. However, for matters of content consumption, consumers may have a preference for larger screens, making online channels less desirable for viewing, and leading consumers without cable subscriptions to opt-out of viewing altogether.  

What we think

Most of the factors contributing to reduced viewership this season are non-recurring, suggesting that NFL ratings won’t decline significantly in 2017. A review of viewership for regular season games shows that after a rocky start to the season, the games following the presidential election had improved viewership.

The trend of cord cutting likely won’t deter “hardcore” NFL fans (those who watch nearly every game), but “casual” fans may find that they can live without full coverage and opt to watch sporadically online.

If the NFL wants
to continue to attract new, young viewers, they may want to rethink their approach to TV

Losing some “casual” fans won’t considerably reduce viewership, but if the NFL wants to continue to attract new, young viewers, they may want to rethink their approach to TV. This could mean adopting new advertising models, including less intrusive or extensive commercial breaks, or introducing new formats of coverage, potentially taking a cue from the popular NFL RedZone coverage, which focuses solely on game highlights.

In the near future, the NFL may also be able to increase the value of its programming through interactive viewing opportunities and virtual reality options. However, over the long term, if the NFL fails to innovate or recognize changing consumer viewing preferences, they may see their fanbase shrink as younger generations turn to alternative entertainment options.

Dana Macke is a Senior Research Analyst, Lifestyles & Leisure at Mintel. Dana incorporates her background in strategic marketing to deliver actionable insights on a wide range of lifestyle and leisure topics.

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