As Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones, and the NFL engage in an ugly internal fight over the future leadership of the NFL, TV partners at CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC are staring at their own internal conflicts — namely a substantial decline in NFL ratings that is on pace to cost the four networks up to $500 million in lost revenue.
Already several hundred million in lost revenue has been booked in 2017 and it has the league’s top executives and television partners scrambling to figure out what went wrong. How did a league that was setting ratings records in 2015 suddenly see its audience fall by nearly 20% just two years later.
While much of the attention has focused on the protests, according to ongoing conversations with several people close to the league and its television partners over the past couple of months, the ratings decline that will cost the TV partners up to $500 million can actually be attributed to four primary factors.
Those factors in order:
1. The decimation of the one eastern kickoff window on Sundays.
If you’re anything like me your typical Sunday as a kid looked like this — you went to church on Sunday mornings and then when you got home from church you ate Sunday lunch with your family and someone put on the NFL game.
It used to be that the NFL’s one eastern kickoff window was can’t miss television. It was the foundation of the league’s television dominance.
Monday Night Football didn’t really detract from the overall product because it was just one game.
But then the NFL added games games in London, a Sunday Night Football game on NBC, and a Thursday night football game all year around.
You now have just seven or eight games kicking off in this one eastern window and those games are frequently bad or mediocre for most of the country because the better games are being pulled to be put on exclusive airing windows on Thursday, Monday or Sunday nights.
For instance, I’m going to watch Titans-Steelers tonight and I’m letting my boys stay up late to watch this game with me tonight. But I’ve already told my wife that we can do whatever she wants on Sunday during the usual Titans window — at one eastern — because we won’t be watching our local team play then.
So the NFL will get my viewership on Thursday, but they will lose my viewership on Sunday.
I’m betting that’s true for many Titans or Steelers fan and that situation replicates itself for fans of teams all season long.
The NFL’s Thursday night game, in conjunction with Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football, is cannibalizing the audience for Sunday at one eastern and, worst of all in the mind of many, it’s also starting to change viewing habits.
No longer is the one eastern window on Sunday the highlight of the sports calendar in the fall.
The result? Ratings are down for Fox and CBS, which used to see massive numbers for this one eastern game and aren’t seeing those same numbers any longer.
There’s a belief out there that the NFL has oversaturated the marketplace and as a result detracted from its most reliable foundation — the one eastern kickoff games nationwide.
2. Bad football.
Put plainly, the NFL is often putting a poor product on the field and NFL fans are choosing to spend their time doing something else.
Much of this is a function of poor quarterback play. You can frequently rate the quality of a game almost entirely based on the quarterbacks who are playing against each other. Seriously, you don’t even need to name the teams.
Let’s consider this week’s slate of 14 NFL games entirely from a quarterback perspective. I’d rank them thusly:
1. Tom Brady vs. Derek Carr
2. Carson Wentz vs. Dak Prescott
3. Matt Ryan vs. Russell Wilson
4. Kirk Cousins vs. Drew Brees
5. Marcus Mariota vs. Ben Roethislisberger
6. Alex Smith vs. Eli Manning
7. Jared Goff vs. Case Keenum
8. Nathan Peterman vs. Philip Rivers
9. Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Jay Cutler
10. Matt Stafford vs. Mitch Trubisky
11. Andy Dalton vs. Brock Osweiler
12. Joe Flacco vs. Brett Hundley
13. Blake Bortles vs. Deshone Kizer
14. Blaine Gabbert vs. Tom Savage
Seven of the 14 games feature two good quarterbacks going head-to-head.
And that’s being pretty generous.
And this is a good week for quarterback match-ups in the NFL.
Odds are the other seven games are going to be pretty mediocre or just plain bad because the quarterbacks are not good. And, worst of all, if you live in the geographic footprint featuring these match ups, you’re held hostage by these games.
Unlike, say, college football where you can flip around and pick the best game if your game stinks, you are stuck in most media markets with only one option, frequently a bad one. That fuels the perception that NFL games are a bad product. Because many of the NFL’s fans don’t see the best games the league produces because their regional game is crap. (I’m going to write on this soon, but I’ve got a radical idea to make the NFL TV product much better, put every game on television. But that’s for a future column.)
In the meantime, I think the biggest threat to the NFL’s product right now is the lack of quality quarterbacks. The scary thing for the NFL? I don’t see that improving because with the CTE issues now becoming a major point of discussion across the country there are going to be fewer and fewer kids playing football. You know most parents won’t let their children box now because we know what it does to a person’s brain, what if the same thing happens with football?
You might think the declining numbers of kids playing football won’t impact things very much, but it’s important to contemplate the position that will be most impacted by this decision.
I think CTE is likely to decimate the quarterback position in football.
That’s because quarterbacks tend to come from two parent, middle class households and the players would probably go to college even if they didn’t play football. Playing quarterback is expensive, you have to go to exclusive camps now to refine your craft and become elite.
The parents of quarterbacks are the most likely parents to pull their sons from football.
Look at the list of top quarterbacks in the NFL, how many of them needed to play football to go to college? Maybe Dak Prescott. Maybe. Are there any other star quarterbacks in the NFL that wouldn’t have gone to college without football?
Not that I know of.
That means football is something that they are choosing to do as part of many other potential activities, sports and otherwise. Football isn’t their way out of poverty, it’s just a sport they start playing and happen to be good at. Odds are most top quarterbacks in the NFL could have also been pretty good at baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, tennis or lacrosse if they’d played those sports instead.
What would happen if you took the top ten quarterbacks and removed them from the NFL? The league would be virtually unwatchable, right?
In the next decade will the Manning brothers, the Brady’s and Brees’s, the Cam Newton’s, Matt Ryan’s and Russell Wilson’s of the world play football? I doubt their parents will let them.
They’ll play other sports.
If that happens, the NFL’s bad play is going to get worse and worse in the years ahead.
3. The addition of two teams to Los Angeles.
While the NFL spent a great deal of time celebrating its return to the nation’s second largest city the reality is this, the Rams and the Chargers have brought down television ratings in Los Angeles, costing the league’s TV partners tens of millions of dollars in tenths of ratings points by themselves.
Because over the past generation without the NFL in LA, the city received the best games every week.
Instead of getting local teams like the Rams and the Chargers, Los Angeles got the Cowboys and the Patriots, the best teams with the biggest fan bases playing in the most important weekly games.
And TV ratings were very good in Los Angeles.
Then LA got two teams of its own and TV ratings dropped.
If the league wants to combat the ratings decline — and it most certainly does — they need to change the rules to allow Los Angeles to get better games, ones that don’t just feature the local teams.
4. The protest
While the protest has received the majority of the media attention and the league and TV partners definitely believe it’s an issue, they don’t believe the protest is the reason for the substantial drop in ratings by itself.
It is one of the reasons for declining ratings, they believe, not THE reason.
There is agreement that the NFL needs to find a resolution to the protests, but the most alarming thing for the league and its TV partners is simply eliminating the protest won’t return the NFL to its ratings golden era, just two short years past.
There’s a significant belief that the league’s TV partners, who are facing up to $500 million in losses this year, need a fundamental restructuring of TV windows to avoid losing even more money in the years ahead.
Can the NFL reclaim its ratings mojo?
Maybe, but not without some substantial changes.
In the meantime, TV is losing hundreds of millions of dollars on NFL games, and they ain’t happy.