We’ve all heard about the NFL’s ratings problem. The President of the United States talks about it every week, so how could the rest of us miss it?
Just one problem: the NFL does not have a ratings problem.
Can the NFL improve its television product drastically and stabilize its reputation? Absolutely. And it certainly could use a refresh. While the NFL’s TV ratings have eroded the last two years, so has television in general with the rise of on-demand viewing and a la carte options for cord-cutters. Sports are doing no better than treading water, this side of the NBA. Despite the fearmongering, the NFL’s ratings are declining at a slower rate than most major networks and cable channels.
In other words, ratings slippage does not equal a “problem”.
Still, there are two big issues for viewers: too many commercials and not enough action. Fewer commercials would eminently improve the NFL as a television product but would also mean less revenue for the networks and the league. That’s a problem. And what in-broadcast improvements, besides shortening the game, could be made to keep viewers engaged?
Cut commercials, increase revenue
The most obvious way to both shorten an event and make it more digestible to its viewers is to trim back advertising.
Fewer commercials is always a good thing, right? I can’t be the only one who has intentionally started watching a sporting event 15 minutes late so I didn’t have to watch commercials, right? Try it, it’s glorious. You’ll have to avoid social media until you’re caught up, but that’s the only real downside.
The problem is that fewer commercials should mean less ad revenue. You may recall that the NFL eliminated one commercial break per quarter in 2017. But did you notice that each commercial break was expanded from one minute and 50 seconds to two minutes and 20 seconds to make up for (literal) lost time?
While “fewer ads equals less revenue” is more simple arithmetic than Economics 101, here’s another simple economics lesson: broadcast fewer commercials and charge more for the spots. You know, supply and demand. Create scarcity and ratchet up the price.
After all the NFL is still king when it comes to ratings: 37 of the 50 most-watched programs on TV in 2017 were NFL games. We’re only here to refresh a strong albeit somewhat stale and sometimes tone-deaf product.
Where else is Budweiser going to place that ad? The NBA Finals? Fine, but Cowboys-Packers on a Sunday afternoon in October will outdo all but Game 5. What about you, Ford, the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship game? Perfect, besides the fact that Week 14 Rams-Eagles beat it out.
The NFL’s next move should be to admit their mistakes that led to an average increase of one additional commercial per year over the past five seasons — and longer commercial breaks in 2017 — and correct course. One less commercial per break would go a long way. Regular season commercial spots were sold for anywhere from $300,000 to $700,000 in 2016, and it isn’t crazy to think the NFL could ratchet that price up and still make more money due to simple supply and demand.
Generating additional revenue and creative in-game marketing
Realistically, the league will be looking for other revenue sources to ensure that they’re not just recouping “lost” revenue but also growing their bottom line. Finding this money could include the addition of jersey patches.
The NBA added jersey patches prior to the 2017–18 season, and it barely registered a blip on the complain-o-meter. As it turns out, the sponsors loved it too, and the small 2.5-by-2.5-inch square on the jerseys is estimated to be a superior value than signage on the actual basketball court.
The NFL began allowing practice jersey sponsors back in 2009, and while the actual financial model would need some massaging, there is a ton of opportunity here. The NFL already shares revenue from television broadcasts amongst teams. In 2017 each team reportedly earned $255 million through revenue sharing. While each NBA team was responsible for selling its own jersey sponsor and NFL teams are currently doing the same with practice jerseys, the league could enter into a different understanding with game jersey patches.
The NFL could also try something new with commercials. They’ve already experimented a bit with commercials in a two-box screen, alongside footage of the lead official conducting a coach’s challenge review. The NHL has begun showing 15- or 30-second commercials as the players skate down the ice and get set prior to face-offs. Soccer reduces commercials to halftime and instead has virtually everything from a broadcast perspective sponsored with ads that pop up from time to time by the scoreboard.
What’s keeping the NFL from being even more creative? This could be a variety of sponsors in new and unique locations on the telecast, digitally superimposed ads, with similar technology to the first-down and line-of-scrimmage lines that appear on all NFL broadcasts. Sponsors on the goalposts, similar to basketball stanchion advertisements, would be an even less-intrusive way to add sponsorship.
It’s unrealistic to expect the NFL to ever move completely toward the soccer model of zero commercial breaks during gameplay. The players welcome TV breaks at times, and cutting too many could impact the quality of play. But it isn’t crazy to think the league could eliminate another break each quarter along with sliding back from 2:20 to 1:50 commercial breaks.
Staying in-stadium as the offense huddles is another interesting idea. Maybe run a 30-second spot alongside live footage of the team huddling up. Perhaps the league will someday allow something similar to what the NBA does: mic-ing up its head coaches on national broadcasts and allowing for short 15-second cuts of coach-to-player audio coming back from commercial breaks. There are creative ways to engage fans and make the most of valuable, behind-the-scenes footage instead of waiting 24 hours and running it on NFL Network.
All of these additional in-game elements can be sponsored, and just like everything else sponsored, we’ll all get used to it in short order. Wouldn’t everyone rather watch two-and-a-half-hour NFL games with a few extra ads sprinkled in than chew up three-and-a-half hours every time we tune in?
Behind-the-scenes content and experiences rule the day
News flash for the NFL suits: behind-the-scenes content and experiences are king. The good news is there are plenty of ways to improve in those areas.
Huddle cams and quicker access to audio from mic’d-up players or coaches are a start. ESPN tests this with the College Football Playoff National Championship and its six different broadcast perspectives, including four TV channels and a couple online options. The NBA has received decidedly mixed reviews on its Player Only broadcasts on TNT.
Instead of simulcasting the same Thursday night broadcast on both network television and NFL Network as usual, why not have the dozens of players employed by the NFL Network do their own broadcast? There’s already so much production poured into each and every broadcast that this isn’t far-fetched at all. NFL Network already sends a field reporter to nearly every game each Sunday simply to provide a pregame sideline report. Why not send a bigger crew to the national games each week and have second broadcasts?
Anything that could engage a second screen to accompany what’s happening live on television would count as engaging content that should keep the most distracted NFL fans attuned to what’s happening.
At the end of the day, the NFL can stabilize and reduce its ratings slide without even touching on-field gameplay. It may mean renegotiating network deals, but that’s a small price to pay if it means saving the product. Creating scarcity with traditional 30-second commercials and adding creative and experiential marketing opportunities will only benefit the league in the long run.