Are fewer people interested in the NFL, or are they just finding new ways to watch?

When you factor in everyone watching on every available “platform” — which in this case means Twitter, various other social media venues, public television, C­SPAN and the 13 regular channels that carried it live — the total audience for first Clinton-Trump debate likely pushed viewership close to 90 million people. It was, in other words, “Super Bowl­-sized” (minus maybe 20 million). 

So yeah, big. But before we get carried away patting ourselves on the back for our civic­mindedness, consider that every week the combined viewership for pro football games exceeds that record-­setting debate audience. Reporting on viewership for the first week’s games of the 2015 season, Variety noted: “For the sixth consecutive year, more than 105 million viewers watched at least some of the Kickoff Weekend game across CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC.”

Also in the world of factoids: the American Gambling Association claims $90 billion will be bet on pro and college football this year. (Alas, only $2 billion of it is “legal,” they complain.)

Point being: Football remains America’s true religion. And yet, pro football is not off to a good start with television viewers this season, even with a quarter of a million viewers watching Thursday’s games on Twitter, a new development for the 2016 season. (One scholarly study estimates a mere 57 million Americans attend church services each week.) 

The morning after the Vikings beat the Packers on Sunday Night Football, which is still the single most-watched program on television week in and week out, ​Brandon Katz at Forbes wrote: “Is it time for Roger Goodell and the NFL to hit the panic button? [Sept. 11th’s] Sunday Night Football matchup drew in its lowest ratings in seven years (​Monday Night Football didn’t fare any better) and last night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings fell even further. According to ​​Deadline​, the primetime portion of last night’s game scored a 13.7/22 in Nielsen’s metered market ratings as the Vikings went on to beat the Packers 17­14. Not only is that down 18 percent from last year’s ratings, it’s also a​​ 9 percent dip compared  to the SNF opener just last week​.” (The game drew ​a stunning 50.4 rating/71​ share here in the Twin Cities, by far the biggest audience for any U.S. metro audience. Milwaukee was second.)

About the same time, ​The Guardian’s DJ Gallo noted: “NFL TV ratings are down through the first two weeks of the season and theories on the reasons why are already flying. It’s the changing media landscape as more Americans cut the cord and stream while they scream. It’s the first wave of people unable to stomach the violence in the game. It’s the impact of conservative activists boycotting the league over Colin Kaepernick.”

Obviously, there’s no reason to organize a bake sale for the NFL. But the downturn is intriguing for a sports-business empire many regard as a juggernaut, a bit like the American residential real estate market prior to 2007­-08.

Whatever the cultural or intra-­NFL storyline reasons for the slump (no Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, etc.), the fragmenting in how fans watch the games continues to accelerate. With Twitter’s deal to stream 10 Thursday night games, including the Vikings’ Dec. 1 match­up against Dallas, the “cord cutting” option has achieved another new, higher level of formal acceptance. (Twitter outbid Yahoo!, Amazon and Facebook for the Thursday Night package. But odds are all three will try again.)

Down in Texas, Chris Brantner runs a website called cutcabletoday.com, a useful service for anyone trying to wean themselves off cable or satellite bills, keep up with little advertised “deals,” and figure out a way to watch their favorite team (or program) at a distance from their primary TV set. We first spoke last spring, at the start of baseball season (RIP 2016 Minnesota Twins), and the pace of new deals expanding options for viewing has kept up a furious pace.

“The Twitter deal is the most significant for the NFL,” says Brantner. “But it seems like every week there’s a new deal somewhere for college football.” Sling, he points out, is now is carrying PAC­ 12 football, while Sony PlayStation Vue has picked up both the Big Ten Network and the Longhorn Network in Texas and Oklahoma. (BTW, here’s one millennial’s amusing experience​ of a year with Sling.)

Brantner says the key to free/cheaper options for NFL fans are these:

1. Antenna. All Vikings games will be available locally over the air with an antenna. That includes the ESPN Monday night games, which will be simulcast by a local affiliate.

2. Sling TV or PlayStation Vue. These two live streaming services offer a package that includes the local FOX live stream in the Minneapolis market. They also offer packages that include ESPN. 

3. Twitter. Twitter will be streaming the [Thursday night football] NBC game between the Vikings and the Cowboys.

4. NBC and FOX apps. You can watch the FOX and NBC games on their respective apps, but you need a cable login to watch. However, PlayStation Vue credentials should authenticate the apps. Sling will not. 

5. NFL Game Pass. This service will give you all games, but they’re on demand. So you can’t watch until the games end. However, if you use a [Virtual Private Network] VPN to sign up, you can gain access to the international version, which plays live games. That being said, there’s some ‘questionability’ about using a VPN to skirt geo­restrictions. (Here’s a link to “the best” VPNs​ and another on­line tech deal​ promising to get you what you want without the VPN.) 

6. Verizon Wireless. Verizon Wireless customers can stream all games free on mobile devices.

Football may be as big as anything thought of as culturally acceptable gets in the United States. But if the early numbers from 2016 continue, pundits will have to take a serious look at why the game has lost a bit of its luster.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/03/2016 - 07:53 am.

    Ratings

    Yes, only Donald Trump and the guy from Forbes, I guess, still talk about ratings. At this point we have no idea who is watching what we now very loosely call, television.

    I am pretty sure lots of folks are watching the NFL but at this point we do not have the tools to measure exactly how many are. For a good long while, I think, the tools we use or develop to measure tv audiences will not keep up with the change in the ways that audience watches the NFL.

  2. Submitted by David Wintheiser on 10/03/2016 - 11:27 am.

    Verizon not a panacea

    I have a fiancee who is both a serious Vikings fan and a Verizon subscriber. When she was living in Milwaukee last season, she had no trouble streaming Vikings games on her mobile phone, but now that she’s back in the Twin Cities, we’ve discovered that Verizon local streams are subject to NFL broadcast blackout restrictions — for instance, we were unable to stream the home opener on her device because the Verizon stream was blacked out.

    Caveat emptor.


    David Wintheiser

  3. Submitted by Nicole Byer on 10/04/2016 - 05:56 am.

    RE:

    I have been using PureVPN to log into the SkySports UK and stream NFL in HD, works like a charm.

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