While the audience for live broadcast television programming has been steadily shrinking over the last few years, there was one bastion of strength that had consistently bucked this trend: the NFL. For the last 10 years, viewership of NFL games continued to grow and grow — until now. This season, the NFL is seeing double-digit drops in television viewership, according to research by CivicScience conducted on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal/Daily.
Sunday Night Football, the highest-rated show for primetime TV for the last five years, has seen a 10 percent drop in ratings so far. Thursday night games have seen a 15 percent decline in viewers, while the live audience for Monday Night Football is down a whopping 19 percent.
Politics are drawing some football fans away from the game
Media executives, however, are not worried, at least publicly. They lay the blame on the presidential election and the Olympics. Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's senior vice president of global research and analytics told SportsBusiness Journal/Daily that it's just a cyclical trend, "Particularly in light of the fact that we are in a really odd year in terms of the protracted presidential race, which has captured the attention of Americans going back a year now. Plus, it’s an Olympic year, which clearly had an impact during the summer."
But outside experts are less optimistic. "I think we’ve reached the tipping point," media consultant Lee Berke told SportsBusiness Journal/Daily. "The TV industry has moved from being mature with broadcast and cable outlets to a startup with all these streaming options."
The NFL's audience is finally faltering
This is the first year that the NFL has been streaming its games live on Twitter for free, and over 2 million people have been tuning in. Meanwhile, 49 percent of customers are streaming the same amount of live sports or less compared with last year, with 9 percent of NFL fans reportedly streaming more live sports, according to a survey conducted by CivicScience. Twenty-six percent of those fans who report following the NFL "closely" are watching less live sports on TV. It's not clear yet how the streaming business will make up for the big declines in television, where advertising is far more lucrative.
The idea that the election is a factor here has some historical merit. Fox Sports’ senior vice president of programming and research, Mike Mulvihill, said that it reminded him of the 2000 election year, when the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was left undecided until December. 2000 was the only year that saw a decrease in NFL viewership among all four TV packages. World Series viewership also saw a significant decrease that year. But John Ourand and Austin Karp, reporters for the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily, believe that sports might be "finally following the track of entertainment programming," with connected television being "the way of the future."