SBJ/Aug. 28-Sept. 3, 2017/Media

NFL likely to see ratings competition from newsy White House

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he NFL’s expected ratings bump this season may not be as big as many have predicted.

We’re now seven months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and there is no end in sight to the news networks’ “Trump Bump.” If you believe that last season’s ratings drop was caused by the amount of attention devoted to the presidential election, this summer’s TV ratings should bring some pessimism into your NFL ratings predictions.

Trump’s presidency has generated a huge amount of interest every week and kept TV ratings for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC high. In June, for example, MSNBC (up 72 percent), CNN (up 21 percent) and Fox News (up 19 percent) all posted double-digit ratings gains over last year, numbers most observers thought would have dropped back down by now. The continued public interest in the Trump presidency could affect engagement in the NFL.

“We now live in an endless news cycle and we have to be prepared for the possibility that some unpredictable thing will flare up on any given Sunday and could affect our viewership,” said Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy for Fox Sports. “It would be a relief and a pleasant surprise if that doesn’t happen through all 17 regular-season Sundays. At some point, it probably will.”

“MNF” hopes to rebound from a 12 percent ratings drop.
ESPN IMAGES
The NFL clearly was spooked by last year’s TV performance where every package showed significant drops. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” for example, was down 12 percent, and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” dropped 10 percent.

In an effort to speed up the game and turn its ratings performance around, the league mandated that networks have fewer commercial breaks and streamlined its replay review process. It also front-loaded much of its schedule with marquee matchups to try and get some momentum this season.

Mulvihill, along with others, said he is “still optimistic going into the season.” He said some of the factors that hurt last season’s ratings have been mitigated.

Earlier this month, he gave a presentation at a Fox Sports seminar filled with talent producers and directors who work on NFL games. He laid out three factors that affected NFL ratings last year and three factors that didn’t. The three factors that affected NFL ratings last year:

Cable news networks continue to see a “Trump Bump.”
GETTY IMAGES
1. The election

Before the election — during weeks 1-9 last season (Sept. 11-Nov. 6) — cable news networks averaged 6.29 million viewers in prime time, which was up 82 percent from the previous year. After the election — during weeks 10-17 (Nov. 13-Jan. 1), they were up 18 percent (4.17 million viewers). Conversely, NFL games were down 13 percent in total viewing from weeks 1-9 and essentially flat in weeks 10-17.

Even if news networks continue their current pace, NFL games should be OK, Mulvihill said.

2. The absence of stars
The NFL started last season with Peyton Manning retired, Tom Brady suspended and Tony Romo injured. Plus, the returning NFC championship game contenders — Carolina and Arizona — were not big national draws.

This season, the networks have to deal with Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, but the Cowboys are expected to remain a big TV draw. Other big draws like New England, Pittsburgh and Green Bay are entering the season at full strength, barring preseason injuries. For Mulvihill, that should help the networks get a good start.

3. The expansion of football windows
Network executives have complained about the added NFL windows for a long time — like the expansion of “Thursday Night Football” and the added London games. They believe the added windows diluted the ratings. The NFL has 110 windows during the course of a season. In 1994, when Fox started carrying NFL games, that figure was at 92.

“Over the course of our participation in the league, we’ve had a 20 percent expansion in the number of game windows,” Mulvihill said. “When you increase the number of windows, you increase total consumption, but the average viewership goes down.”

Three factors that did not affect NFL ratings last year:

1. Colin Kaepernick
Even with its ratings drops last season, the NFL posted a bigger reach and the total number of people that watched any amount of the regular season grew by 5 million viewers. “That is in conflict with the idea of a boycott,” Mulvihill said. “If there was really a meaningful boycott going on, you’d see reach go down. And we didn’t.” Fans may feel strongly about the protests. But there’s no evidence they affected the ratings.

2. Twitter and RedZone Channel
“Thursday Night Football” on CBS and NBC was down 10 percent last season. But Twitter did not account for that shortfall, as its audience made up just 1.7 percent of the total audience. Similarly, RedZone Channel viewing was flat in major markets last year, Mulvihill said.

3. Quality of competition
Fox Sports studied everything from the lengths of games to the number of penalties and replay challenges called over the course of the year. It found little difference to previous years. “The only thing that changed is that the average margin of victory has declined,” Mulvihill said. “It’s become closer and more competitive. We didn’t see any negative trend in the on-field stuff.”


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



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