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Volume 21 No. 1
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What’s next for NFL?

League gets to work on boosting viewership as it explores ways to fire up its business

After a season that saw television viewership drop by double digits, the NFL is looking at changing the advertising inventory around NFL games as one way to guarantee a rebound. The league is considering everything from rolling out fewer pods to using a play clock after touchdowns, which would limit those post-TD advertising breaks.

While the NFL describes those plans as preliminary and admits there’s no consensus yet to roll something out in the fall, league executives are much more definitive about “Thursday Night Football.” While some sponsors and media executives complain that the Thursday package is oversaturating the market, NFL executives say they have no plans to take games out of that package.

The idea that created the most buzz in Houston dealt with an idea to reformat the commercials. During Week 16 last season, several TV networks tested a system that used four longer commercial pods per quarter, rather than five shorter ones. Results from those tests are mixed. NFL executives believe that fewer commercial pods will improve the continuity of the games and keep viewers tuned into the games longer.

“This is not about taking inventory out,” said Hans Schroeder, the NFL’s senior vice president of media strategy, business development and revenue. “It’s about reformatting the game flow and the break flow for commercials to be better tailored to the game today. We know the game flow, rhythm and speed have a different pace and cadence from the past 20 years, which is why we are looking into how we tailor the ads and the breaks.”

Any changes would keep the same number of in-game ads, which would not affect rights fees that networks pay to the leagues.

Initial reaction from TV executives amounted to little more than a shrug. Most network executives contacted for this story do not believe the number of commercial pods had any effect on TV ratings last season. After all, the networks have been producing games with the same number of commercial pods for many seasons, several of which set viewership records.

TV executives maintain that the Week 16 results using four commercial pods per quarter were inconclusive.

“I don’t know that there’s conclusive evidence one way or another based on one week’s data that suggests that it’s a better or worse environment for the advertisers or the viewers,” said Dan Lovinger, executive vice president of advertising sales for NBC Sports Group. “But we’re preparing ourselves for any possibility. We’ve told the NFL that we’re evaluating it in case they decide that it’s something they want to continue.”

Limiting post-TD ad breaks is one area being studied.

The NFL said it has been studying shorter ad breaks much longer than the Week 16 test. It was conducting tests on the desired length of advertising pods in controlled lab experiments that document eye tracking and sense heart rates.

“One of the big insights we saw was around the number of stoppages and how that’s pretty jarring on the fan,” said Amanda Herald, the NFL’s director of media strategy and business development. “Smoothing that out could have a big impact, and making some small changes can make a big impact in the way fans perceive and experience the game at home and in the stadium.”

News of these kinds of tests were cheered by many sponsorship executives who said they are happy to see the league take TV ratings seriously, even if many of them blamed the overheated presidential election season as the main reason why the NFL’s ratings dropped.

“There were some rough patches this season,” said Phil Pacsi, vice president of sports and events marketing at Bridgestone, an NFL sponsor since 2007. “But we were satisfied enough that viewership turned around post-election that we had no problem making and keeping our commitment to NFL playoff advertising. There were some [regular-season prime-time] matchups that turned out to be questionable, but we’re still big fans of the Thursday night games and that whole concept of extending the NFL weekend.”

For all the angst about declining ratings, not one of the league’s official sponsors reported seeing any diminution in the NFL’s ability to cut through retail clutter.

“NFL fan passion is still high,” said Frito-Lay CMO Jennifer Saenz, citing a 15 percent increase in Pepsi/Fritos NFL retail displays across the country over last year. “We haven’t see any signs that’s decreasing.”

Hyundai CMO Dean Evans agreed, noting that Hyundai’s awareness among NFL fans, and share of search on Google, have increased dramatically over the first two years of its sponsorship.

“The NFL’s still the top sports platform in America, so we remain dedicated,” Evans said. “It’s still helping our brand to transform itself and be more American all the time, which is more important now than ever.”

The one area that is starting to cause concern among both TV network and sponsorship executives deals with the oversaturation of the game — particularly in the newly expanded Thursday night package. As the number of national windows grows, the number of marquee games remains consistent, which has led to several prime-time clunkers.

“Does the NFL have some challenges, like anyone dealing with changes in media consumption? Sure,” said Elizabeth Lindsey, who heads Wasserman’s consulting group, which has a client list of NFL sponsors that includes Nationwide, Pepsi and Microsoft. “Do they need to reconsider how much product is in the market? Maybe. But the sky has not fallen, and it would take a huge dip for me to have any doubts about the NFL’s power as a TV property.”

Or, as NFL sponsorship chief Renie Anderson put it, “We don’t ever take it for granted ever, but our ‘bad day’ is still the best day in sports television.”

The NFL’s Schroeder said the league is not considering shrinking the Thursday night package.

“If you look back over the last six to eight years, people like ‘Thursday Night Football,’” Schroeder said. “The numbers prove it. Having another night of the NFL is a good thing. We’re as committed as ever.”

Sponsors still aren’t so sure about the Thursday package’s future. Nick Kelly, Anheuser-Busch senior director of experiential marketing, sports, wonders if players’ complaints about the games will turn it into a negotiating chip during the next collective-bargaining agreement.

Overall, network and sponsor executives spent Super Bowl week crowing about NFL ratings, even in this down year. Late last year, marketers inside the NFL had identified more than 25 possible reasons for the ratings declines. By the Super Bowl, those footing the bill for NFL media were satisfied that the most contentious presidential election in memory and some noncompetitive prime-time matchups were the principal culprits for the ratings erosion.

“In the fabric of our entire media plan, we feel very good about the reach of the NFL,” said Jen Davis, vice president and general manager of North American feminine care at Procter & Gamble, which had its busiest Super Bowl ever, with three in-game ads and activations from its Secret, Always and Old Spice brands in Houston.

NFL Regular-Season Audience Trend

Average number of viewers (000s) for the past five years.

Network(s) 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
NBC (“SNF”) 20,323 22,522 21,275 21,747 21,463
Fox 19,434 20,706 20,728 21,200 19,700
CBS 17,671 19,058 18,629 18,700 17,652
NBC/CBS/NFL Net (“TNF”) 12,438 12,425 11,795 7,055 6,352
ESPN (“MNF”) 11,390 12,896 13,349 13,679 12,826

Note: “Thursday Night Football” was NFL Network only in 2012 and 2013.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

Super Bowl Audience Trend

The last 10 Super Bowls ranked by average number of viewers

Year Super Bowl Network Average rating Average number of viewers (000s) Matchup
2015 XLIX NBC 47.5 114,442 Patriots-Seahawks
2014 XLVIII Fox 46.7 112,191 Seahawks-Broncos
2016 50 CBS 46.6 111,864 Broncos-Panthers
2012 XLVI NBC 47.0 111,346 Giants-Patriots
2017 LI Fox 45.3 111,300 Patriots-Falcons
2011 XLV Fox 46.0 111,010 Packers-Steelers
2013 XLVII CBS 46.3 108,414 Ravens-49ers
2010 XLIV CBS 45.0 106,476 Saints-Colts
2009 XLIII NBC 42.0 98,732 Steelers-Cardinals
2008 XLII Fox 43.1 97,448 Giants-Patriots

Source: Nielsen Sports