Everyone has a magic bullet on what’s causing NFL ratings to dip from its historic highs only a few years ago. There have been multiple hypotheses thrown out there — other than the Occam’s Razor answer of people have more options and everything is seeing ratings drop due to media fragmentation. It’s Colin Kaepernick’s fault. It’s kneeling during the anthem. It’s not signing Colin Kaepernick. It’s the NFL being liberal. It’s the NFL being hypocritical. Domestic abuse is the problem . . . or maybe it’s the quality of the game. Cord Cutters and millennials are an easy target, so let’s throw that one in there. We have a new option and it could lead to Thursday Night Football games being rolled back or cut altogether: there’s actually too much football!
This week alone has a rough schedule. There are college and NFL football games on Thursday. There are college and high school games — if you still support the old town football team — on Friday. There’s an entire slate of college football on Sunday. In fact, there are more than 12 hours of football on every Saturday. Then we have Sunday — with a London game — which means the NFL is on from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep. Finally, there’s Monday Night Football. Next week MACtion starts — MACtion is the best — and that means football on Tuesday. That’s seven days of the week of football.
Fine, that’s a bit of an oversaturation problem. Consuming that much football content is difficult. We didn’t even discuss fantasy television shows, podcasts, shows like NFL Live or Sunday countdown shows. That’s a lot of football content and eventually, people are going to decide they don’t need to watch nationally televised games. There are things to do, people to see, and a Sunday Night Football game with the Colts involved isn’t drawing in anyone.
We can’t say we didn’t see this one coming. In 2014 Mark Cuban basically told everyone what to expect when he said, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” That was the biggest covered line in the interview, but here’s the more important part:
“I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business. They’re trying to take over every night of TV. Initially, it’ll be, ‘Yeah, they’re the biggest-rating thing that there is.’ OK, Thursday, that’s great . . . Then if it gets Saturday, now you’re impacting colleges. Now it’s on four days a week. It’s all football. At some point, the people get sick of it.”
Well, that sounds pretty prescient, doesn’t it? There’s just one slight problem with the idea of rolling back Thursday games. Companies are still paying for them and at a rate that doesn’t correlate to the drop in viewership. Rights fees are still going up while viewership numbers are going down. Amazon just bought digital streaming rights to TNF this year. They outbid Twitter which had it in 2016 by five-times the amount of the previous year’s fee. CBS and NBC still bid on rights to the Thursday games. Owners aren’t exactly looking to take less money. They aren’t going to give up rights fees unless they can make that money up elsewhere.
The networks are essentially asking the NFL to fix their mistakes. It is the networks on the hook for the rights fees. If viewer numbers drop down, the NFL still gets paid the amount agreed upon. It’s the networks who have to deal with advertising buy backs. It’s the networks whose business is taking a hit. It’s not the NFL. Good luck convincing 32 billionaires who are extremely successful in business to try and give revenue back or limit games. Networks need to figure out a way to make the financials work . . . either that or they made a bad business decision to begin with and overbid for rights.
Changing the Thursday night schedule could also have an unintended consequence for networks pining for their former ratings bonanza. Amazon has a taste for live sports rights now. This could throw them in a bidding war for the NFL. They have the money to do it. So does Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, and Facebook. Take away their Thursday night games, they may go for Sunday day games. Then television executives can pretend they didn’t see it coming . . . again.
Everyone seems to be looking for a quick fix to the drop in ratings when there isn’t one. Ratings are dipping because of a combination of factors. It’s not one thing. It’s not the guy who is screaming to boycott the NFL or burning jerseys because of protests during the anthem. It’s not only because millennials love avocado toast, but hate CTE. It’s not only because the product on the field is bad because of fewer practices. It’s not just oversaturation. It’s all of the above combined.
It’s because when a piece of programming sets ratings records, eventually there’s only one place to go and that’s down — especially in this market place. Some new type of measurement or new reality needs to set in eventually. There is too much programming out there to expect the NFL to continually hit numbers it did in the past. That’s fine. Relative to other programming it still does the best. It still hits the most and wide array of demographics. It’s still the king of live television. The NFL will still have the highest rated programming on TV when the top 50 shows come out at the end of the year.
But it’s much more fun — and easier — to overreact and find that quick fix. So oversaturation it is . . . for now.