Viewers are Losing Affection for the NFL and How to Rebuild It

When you think of any programming franchise with a strong following of enthusiastic and loyal fans, you tend to think of the iconic National Football League (NFL). But ratings performance erosion in the 2016 season is one of the biggest topics in sports this year. While there are multiple industry-related reasons being attributed for ratings losses, and debates about whether declines will continue or recover, media executive Gary Reisman points to another dynamic: declining emotional attachment to the NFL franchise. 

Theories on NFL Performance Declines
Some publications, like The Atlantic, ascribe the decline to fragmentation of audiences, the national election cycle, changing viewing patterns by Millennials, the erosion of the number of superstar football players and must-see game rivalries.  The Atlantic article goes on to say that after ratings declines of -8% leading into the national election, flat-to-down performances post-election and a -20% playoff ratings decline compared to the first Saturday night playoff game of 2015, the conclusion is “At best, televised football is no longer a growth industry, but merely a strong business that has peaked. At worst, this is the beginning of a period of steady decline for the one thing on traditional television that was never supposed to waver.”

Reisman, CEO/Founder of LEAP Media Investments, points out “it’s true that the general media environment – fragmentation and news -- is causing ratings leakage but through our data (see details below) we found that there was also diminishing consumer engagement with the NFL brand. Simply put, there is a decrease in emotional attachment for the NFL in the market, which in turn can directly impact engagement and viewership. “To be fair, year after year, we’ve seen that among TV programming tent pole shows and events, the NFL is one of the most emotionally attached media franchises among 18-64 year-olds.  While the NFL may have a diminished Emotional Attachment over the past two years – it is still top dog, still an exceptionally valuable media property and the Super Bowl will inevitably remain the most important media asset for years to come.”

Some media executives like David Poltrack, CBS Chief Research Officer, remain optimistic. “One of the most important elements of the fall television schedule is NFL football. As the coverage of the NFL by the broadcast networks and cable networks has grown, so too have NFL audiences. We believe that the major cause of the lower NFL ratings in the first half of the season was the incremental competition from the coverage of the presidential race. Since Election Day we have already seen NFL ratings improve,” he stated at UBS’ 5th Annual Global Media and Communications Conference . “There have been many theories concerning the anomaly in NFL ratings. We've analyzed all of these possible causes and do not believe there is any reason to conclude that there will be any seminal change in the strong ratings performance of NFL football,” he added.

While executives at marketers, agencies and networks look beyond ratings and remain positive about the sustainable value of the NFL franchise, there is fragmentation that tends to steer football viewers away from viewing the game on TV. There is an over-abundance of opportunities to view football off-platform that cull the most exciting moments, and, a wide choice of Fantasy Leagues also syphon attention from viewing while focusing fans on plays and players that contribute to their personal curated league. New e-sports franchises like WinPlay are likely to accelerate this trend. Reisman shares insights on how these emerging realities may be impacting attachment to the NFL franchise beyond ratings.

Emotional Engagement as a Performance Factor
LEAP’s audience data is based on a patented process that quantifies a consumer’s emotional attachment - or bond - to a brand, then creates a sophisticated look at like-audiences at scale. These include Brand Enthusiasts (Fans) who are highly attached to a brand, Brand Conquests who are moderately attached to a brand, and Brand Expansion audiences.  

The percentage of fans who are Monday Night Football Enthusiasts declined over a two year period. Enthusiasts are defined as those who are extremely unwilling to give up a brand – or in the case of media -- extremely unwilling to give up watching a particular show or franchise.  LEAP’s EA® ratings tend to correlate with Nielsen ratings. Further, the percentage of Enthusiasts not only declined among adult viewers; there were even greater declines among men who viewed Monday Night Football over a two-year period:
2014       2016
Monday Night Football                  28%        24%
Monday Night Football Men       36%        29%
Source: Leap Media Investments

According to Reisman fewer people (and fewer men in particular) feel strong loyalty to the NFL brand. “They are more willing to give up watching Monday Night Football as evidenced by the -14.3% drop (24% vs 28%),” he noted, “That would mean that the NFL would have fewer enthusiastically engaged viewers. And the drop is larger among men (36% to 29% a -19.4% drop) which could translate into viewers who are less likely to watch MNF,” he added.

“But to be fair, year after year, we seen that among TV programming tent pole shows and events, the NFL is one of the most attaching media franchises among 18-64 year olds.  So while the NFL may have diminished in its EA over the past two years, it is still top dog and still a very valuable media property.”

How to Reverse Performance Declines
How can MNF and the NFL reverse the erosion in enthusiasm? Reisman was philosophical. “Like any brand – you focus on finding out why there is drop in EA – what factors are driving that?” He recommended addressing the following questions:    

Ø  Has the NFL possibly oversaturated the airways creating lower engagement (e.g. I can always find an NFL game or watch clips online – so why watch TV?)
Ø  How much has the media fragmentation impacted NFL viewership and is declining viewership driving a decline in emotional attachment, or vice versa?
Ø  Does it have to do with the potential long-term effects of game play on players?  
Ø  Does it have to do with scandals around players? Is this widespread affecting other sports as well?
Ø  Does it have to do with other factors that can be understood through further research and addressed?
Ø  Are consumers, especially young viewers, more interested in other TV, video and digital entertainment options?

“Once you understand why people are losing emotional attachment to the franchise you can develop strategies and tactics to address (just like any other consumer brand),” Reisman noted.  “People are talking about competition, distribution platforms, Twitter, leakage of subscriptions for ESPN, player concussions, players sitting out the national anthem, the aging out of the audience. Obviously there are a lot of factors but one factor that should be taken into consideration is raw marketplace Emotional Attachment and resulting engagement that has decreased as well. EA is leading indicator that suggests there are simply fewer people who are highly attached to the NFL than there were two years ago. This is the primary stakes of viewership. A factor not looked at but should be considered is the franchise of the NFL and attachment to that franchise is declining,” Reisman concluded. “Our data suggests this is yet another factor that should be looked at seriously and addressed by the league.”

Comments can be addressed to Gary Reisman at gary@leapmediainvestments.com

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