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A more compelling theory for the decline in NFL ratings

The explanation may very well lie in a combination of things, plus a facet about which I’ve seen no discussion: commercial overload.

Not to belabor the issue, but the on-going ratings slide for the National Football League — in terms of both business and culture — is a very big deal, given the sport’s over-sized impact on just about everything it touches. 

Something is, or at least has been, happening to the National Football League. And there’s no agreement on what’s causing it, as I’ve written about before.

Last Sunday, Star Tribune business columnist Lee Schafer got into the mix. Meanwhile, the sports site Deadspin has noted a corresponding slide in ratings for English Premier League telecasts (i.e. true major league soccer, not the AA stuff played here in the colonies.)

The drop in the size of the TV audience for pro football has become an impossible-to-ignore topic that has the commissioner himself, Roger Goodell, flailing for some way to reassure nervous TV and advertising executives. Why? Because those well-groomed hustlers are dropping as much as $220 million a year into the bank account of every NFL team owner thanks to advertisers paying near usurious rates to reach TV’s last great monolithic audience. But what may be most interesting is what is not being considered, at least out loud for public consumption.

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But before we get to that, for those of you at home and not following so much, here’s a compact list of reasons given for this season’s dramatic decline: 

• The election. People have been so absorbed with Hillary vs. The Donald they just didn’t have the time or energy to … take a break and watch football. To which I say: Are you kidding? Who didn’t want three hours of distraction from that train wreck?

• Colin Kaepernick. Football fans are such hardened right-wingers that the sight of the 49ers quarterback and a handful of other black players protesting police violence is a deal breaker. You know, six guys “misbehaving” and it’s, “Screw the NFL.”

• No Peyton Manning. And no Tom Brady for the first few games of the season. These established stars are the main/only reason lifelong fans watch the games on TV. Right. Just like fans turned off their sets when Fran Tarkenton retired.

• Glut. The NFL decided Sundays weren’t enough omnipresence, and that the Disneys and CBSs of the world would pay fat fees for the rights to games on Thursdays, in addition to Sunday nights and Mondays. Even if you like candy, it tastes better if you binge on it only once a week, not every day.

• Shaking down taxpayers. All but the most blinkered get-a-life fans have grown restless with the way the NFL — one of the most profitable private enterprises in the country — has suckered local politicians into financing “public stadiums” for the league’s further enrichment. I like the smell of that one.

• Constant bad publicity. Locally, over the past 15 years, our beloved Vikings lead the league in arrests for DUI, domestic violence and on and on. And that’s just here. Nationally, “stars” like Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Tampa’s Jameis Winston have the kind of reputations for predatory sexual behavior mothers have warned their daughters about since time immemorial. And the picture isn’t a lot better with lesser-known players. Any fan with a conscience has a tough time cheering on a guy accused of rape … twice.

• The NFL hates fun. Seattle Seahawks star Richard Sherman (a Stanford guy who actually graduated) recently said: “The league isn’t fun anymore. Every other league, you see the players have a good time. It’s a game. This isn’t politics. This isn’t justice. This is entertainment. And they’re no longer allowing the players to entertain. They’re no longer allowing the players to show any kind of personality, any kind of uniqueness, any individuality. Because they want to control the product. They want to control the messaging, etc., etc.’” On the other hand, if you have an authoritarian streak and prefer your entertainment controlled by heavy-handed, military-like rules, the NFL is your game. 

Millennial tech heads. Young fans aren’t umbilically linked to their 60-inch Vizios. They’re watching on other “devices,” which Nielsen hasn’t figured out a way to detect and survey. Never mind that the best guess from experts is that people actually watching entire games on cell phones is in the hundred thousands, not the millions that would explain the ratings decline.

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• NFL RedZone. The NFL’s coziness with fantasy betting has created a new generation of fans who care less about the strategies and drama of the game itself and more about the scoring highlights, which NFL RedZone compresses into a streaming highlight reel … without 200-300 commercials. On that latter point, we may be getting somewhere. 

The explanation may very well lie in a combination of some or all of the above … plus another facet about which I’ve seen no discussion. And that is: commercial overload.

The great appeal of NFL games to advertisers, and therefore the league’s ability to charge the rights fees it does from networks, is the accepted fact that football is one of the last forms of TV entertainment that people, men in particular, will watch live, which means actually seeing the ads, of which there are literally hundreds each game. (OK, 112 by this count), as opposed to 11 minutes of “action” where a play is being run.

Is there any doubt that DVRs, time-shifting and ad-skipping is one of the tectonic shifts in television? If we agree on that, why would the NFL be immune to it? Millions of fans may still be content to sit through a game with an average running time of just over three hours. But an entire generation has now reached consumer adulthood with impatience toward commercial overload and with the technical chops to avoid it. 

I don’t know about you, but speaking as a 55-year Vikings/football fan (Oh, the sorrow I’ve seen!), I feel a combination of guilt and festering annoyance at the amount of time required to “consume” an NFL game. “Guilt” because every three-minute ad break on a Sunday afternoon, night, or Monday/Thursday is a reminder that I really should be getting something useful done, and annoyance that I’m trapped watching the same pickup truck ad for the 50th time.

Scanning through the great Googling machine for anything on viewer resistance to televised commercials I came across this from London-based Manfred Mareck at Market Research World:

When it comes to advertising consumer often feel overwhelmed by the relentless barrage of commercials on US Television, which they can’t easily control and which interrupt their enjoyment. The more involved viewers are with the storyline of a programme, the more irritated they become at the commercial break. Unlike television, magazines allow the reader to retain control; the Print advertisements allow them to enter a different world (if they so wish), to linger and absorb the images or simply to turn the page if the advertisement is not relevant. Some of the metaphors used by respondents for magazine advertising include bridges or highways (connecting, providing a flow), maps (informative, helping to orientate) and the colour blue (relaxing, working together) whereas TV commercials are often associated with the colour red (attention-getting, but also loud, disruptive and battle).


To study the impact of TV programmes and commercials, an MRI scanner recorded the subjects’ brain activity as they watched. One of the main findings is that advertising content that is relevant to the programme environment in which it appears is more likely to stimulate brain activity in areas of the brain commonly associated with advertising effectiveness. Thus congruence between programme and commercial content should be a key consideration when buying specific airtime segments. But the survey also shows that programme content primarily activates the part of the brain that deals with absorption, indicating that viewers lose themselves in the programme. But as soon as the commercial break starts, viewers re-engage with their surroundings – memory and decision-making faculties take over again. Call me a cynic, but switching the television off would probably have the same effect.

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That led directly to this from Alan Wolk at The Guardian:

For today’s internet-enabled consumer, TV commercials are possibly the least efficient way to learn about a product. They are 30 seconds of sell, when all we really want to do is sit back and watch our show. Time-shifting has made it possible for us to make watching TV just one more scheduled activity in our already packed diaries. It’s not that we don’t want to hear from brands, it’s just that we don’t want to hear from them during the time we have set aside to watch TV. Hence the recent popularity of the term ‘interruptive advertising’, a damning moniker if there ever was one. People don’t want to be interrupted by advertising. They want to engage with it on their own terms, when they’re in consumer mode and thus in the proper mindset to listen to a brand’s messaging.

It’s not surprising that the NFL and advertising agencies haven’t offered the hammering glut of “interruptive advertising” as a possible source of the NFL’s problem. Their Christmas bonuses, if not their livelihoods, depend on wringing as much life out of the system as they can. But as theories go, it makes more sense to me than the election or a few “cop-hating” players.