As the NFL heads into its biggest day of the year, there’s an elephant in the room: declining TV ratings and what they mean for the league’s longterm prospects. The NFL’s Nielsen ratings were down by 13% in the 2017 regular season and 12% (so far) in the playoffs. The decline was a product of a few factors. Some are temporary. For instance, the Dallas Cowboys were bad; the Green Bay Packers lost Aaron Rodgers; and the New York Giants had no interest in fielding a watchable product. Those are three massively popular teams that wound up being equally massive disappointments.
Let’s be clear: Super Bowl 52 will not see low ratings. It will still be viewed by more than 100 million people and more than $4 billion will be wagered on the game. (As seen with these super bowl prop bets , oddsmakers analyze everything from the halftime show to the commercials). Advertisers will still get a decent ROI on their $5 million investments.
They will not, however, see record numbers. Should NFL execs be worried? Much of the NFL’s business model relies on advertising, and as much as new platforms and new media can pick up the slack in terms of viewership, no advertising platform has the return-on-investment of television. The league is currently buoyed by the fact that no other medium can more reliably sell trucks, and it receives the largest television contracts in the world. The NFL just sold the rights to its much-maligned Thursday Night Football product for the next five years to 21st Century Fox for $3.3 billion.
The manner in which people consume, not just live sports, but media in general, is changing, and it’s leading to declining ratings for television on the whole. While some NFL detractors will credit the ratings decline to player-safety concerns or protest controversies – which effect the word “boycott” time and again on social media – the reality is that, in the current media environment, it would be strange if NFL ratings didn’t go down.
The industry that is professional football has likely reached a plateau in terms of growth and will start to trend backwards. Adapting to that trend will be critical to the league’s long-term prospects, in terms of profitability, growth, and survival.