SBJ/Jan. 16-22, 2017/Media

How NFL Net is winning where others aren’t

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The dominant theme in sports media for the past two years is that cable channels are in trouble. Not only are they losing subscribers rapidly, but they have not been able to figure out how to attract younger viewers. NFL Network is the type of niche sports channel that would seem to be most affected by this trend, especially given its cost of $1.48 a subscriber per month, which makes the network cable’s fifth most expensive channel, according to SNL Kagan.

But NFL Network has been bucking the trend, both in terms of distribution and TV ratings. It is in 71.517 million homes, which is only about 1 million homes lower than its October 2013 high of 72.464 million, according to Nielsen.

Plus, the channel’s programming has proved to be popular among the younger demos, network executives say. In fact, this NFL season saw NFL Network become the second most popular sports network in the 18-49 and 18-34 demos, overtaking bigger rivals like ESPN2, FS1 and NBCSN. ESPN has the biggest audience. This marks the first time in NFL Network’s 13-year history that it has hit the No. 2 spot in those demos during football season.

“This is a good, big step for us,” said Jordan Levin, the NFL’s chief content officer. “We live in a world where we see declines across the board, so being able to show a little bit of growth on the total viewers front is a pretty solid place to be.”

“Good Morning Football” airings posted increases among the 18-49 demo.
Photo by: NFL NETWORK


The network’s live games helped, of course. NFL Network carried 18 “Thursday Night Football” regular-season games, eight exclusively, this season, which were the most watched on the network. The Christmas night Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game set a network viewership record with 15.4 million viewers.

But in an interview last week, Levin was most energized when talking about his network’s studio shows and shoulder programming, which he said primarily was responsible for pushing NFL Network past ESPN2 among younger demos this season.

Levin identified the morning show “Good Morning Football” as having the biggest impact. The show airs live from 7 to 10 a.m. ET, and reairs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. The live telecast posted a 15 percent increase in the 18-49 demo, and the reair also did well. During the season, it averaged 101,000 total viewers from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., which placed it just behind FS1’s morning block of “Undisputed” and part of “The Herd,” which had 107,000 total viewers in the same time frame, Levin said.

“We are within spitting distance,” Levin said. “It’s pretty tight.”

Levin credited a programming strategy that targeted younger viewers. Long-running shows like “A Football Life” profiled younger people. And NFL Network’s other shows, like “GameDay Final,” courted younger viewers by including pop culture stars such as Green Bay Packers fan Lil Wayne and New England Patriots fan Mark Wahlberg. NFL Network launched series like “Tackle My Ride” and carried EA Sports “Madden” video game competitions, which brought younger and more diverse audiences to the network.

“You don’t ever want to abandon your audience — your hardcore avid audience comes first — but you want to find some other opportunities to run out,” Levin said. “Overall those shows don’t represent a large number of hours. But collectively that’s been part of the strategy.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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