COLLEGE PARK, Md., Oct. 14, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Sports management and marketing experts at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business say this season's NFL TV ratings lag, by more than 10 percent according to Nielsen ratings data, is essentially a blip triggered by various factors, from relative outliers like Clinton-Trump presidential election drama and Nation Anthem demonstrations to enduring trends like fantasy sports.
Former AOL and NFL executive Derrick Heggans, now a professor in UMD's Department of Logistics, Business and Public Policy, says those eyeballs are coming back. "The NFL — and sports in general, but particularly the NFL — is the ultimate soap opera," he says. "It's the ultimate reality show." The league knows this, he says, and it "writes the drama into its season, putting together a football schedule to get the most return from the more-dramatic matchups and storylines. "
Many observers have blamed the ratings disappointment on politics, noting that the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, on Sept. 26, drew a record-setting 84 million viewers, stealing viewers from ESPN's "Monday Night Football." And that might explain some of the lag, Heggans concedes. The second debate, on Oct. 9, drew a more typical 66.5 million viewers. Coming days after the release of a scandalous 2005 video of Trump lewdly commenting about women, it's possible that the debate stole share from Fox's "Sunday Night Football." Then again, it's possible that the game — Green Bay Packers vs. the New York Giants — stole viewers from the debate. The third and final debate between Trump and Clinton won't be a factor for the NFL. It's scheduled for a football-free Wednesday, Oct 19.
The league's missing star power might have also dinged its ratings. The New England Patriots' Tom Brady was sidelined for the first four weeks of the season because of his "deflategate" suspension. Peyton Manning retired, and Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo was benched with injuries. But star players leave every year, Heggans says. The NFL abides.
Smith marketing professor Hank Boyd agrees. "If that's a contributing factor, it's a small one," he says.
Then there's quarterback Colin Kaepernick's much-publicized protest of the National Anthem. If it's a contributing factor, it too looks to be minimal. The league, in trying to discern the root of the ratings flag, said in an internal memo this week it sees "no evidence that concern over player protests during the National Anthem is having any material impact on ratings. In fact, our own data show that perception of the NFL and its players is actually up in 2016."
So perhaps more can all be blamed on cord-cutters, a growing cohort among the league's key demographic of 18- to 34-year-old men. Football is drawing an audience now on mobile devices and Twitter, and the Nielsen figures don't capture those viewers.
"We're talking about ratings that are on one screen," says Heggans, who is the faculty champion for UMD's Sports Management Fellows Program and faculty director for the Maryland Sports Business Academy. "The Nielsen ratings are simply incomplete. We are in a multiscreen world."
Maybe, but Boyd also points to the possibility that oversaturation and the fantasy football effect are bruising the ratings. "You have so many games, not necessarily in the professional league, but you also have college," Boyd says. Fantasy fans, meanwhile, have loyalties that are fractured across the league, so they're less interested in "wrapping themselves up" in any one game. They just want highlights.
Adapting, Boyd says, "is the key," and the NFL has a history of adapting, whether it's adding fan gear for a growing female fan base or embracing its social media audience. "It is an incredibly strong brand, the NFL," he says. "American football is still one of the things that defines America."
Nonetheless, in some places across the country, youth participation in football has been falling as worries rise about the risks of concussion and other brain traumas. And if the trend sustains, the NFL could see a drop in its fan base, with fewer kids growing up as fans. But that's likely 15 years down the road, both Boyd and Heggans say.
"We have to keep in mind that there's always going to be change out there," Boyd says, recalling ebbs and flows in Major League Baseball's fan base. "Maybe football is going to start to go through a rough patch."
Together ESPN, NBC, Fox and CBS spend roughly $5 billion a year for the rights to broadcast NFL games. The expense has long been justified because the games draw a big devoted audience who will sit through the sport's many advertising breaks, Heggans says. And outside live sporting events, "that kind of appointment-viewing audience is hard to come by, as people increasingly favor using DVRs or commercial-free streaming services like Netflix." The games are not merely a ratings and advertising vehicle, they're also "a popular place for the networks to promote their other shows."
"Football is still doing well," Heggans says, "relative to everything else."
Related info at Smith Brain Trust at http://www.rhsmith.umd.edu/faculty-research/smithbraintrust and on Twitter: @SmithBrainTrust.
About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.
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SOURCE University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business