Analysts Are Missing The Mark On The NFL Ratings Decline

Chops March 1, 2018 418 Reads
NFL Ratings

The NFL is not only TV’s most popular live sports broadcast — it’s television’s highest-rated program. It draws more viewers than shows like The Big Bang Theory, (the now unwatchable) The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. The NFL matters to Americans. If you go strictly by eyeballs, nothing may matter more.

NFL Ratings Decline: DFS the Cause?

The NFL ratings decline is sending the TV industry and NFL in general into panic mode. 2017 ratings dropped around 9%. This was after 2016 dropped 9% from 2015.

If 2017 and 2016 were steady drops, then 2015 must’ve been a down year too, right? Not so much.

2015 was a near record year for FOX and CBS, with ESPN posting solid numbers as well. 2014 was the same.

When TV’s most watched show suffers a decline, everyone looks for reasons. Unfortunately, they’re looking in the wrong places. Punditry has coalesced around a couple of varying themes: The Colin Kaepernick kneeling controversy is blamed. President Trump (both the distraction and attention his 2016 campaign created as well as his anti-NFL tweet-storm) gets some blame. Chord-cutting millennials get blamed for just about everything, including this.

While a two-season, 16-week sample size can be small and noisy with plenty of variables, pundits have overlooked a real root cause for the ratings drop: limited daily fantasy and sports betting.

For the NFL, the problem, and dare I say the answer, are the same: betting makes broadcasts more interesting.

NBA and MLB Recognize the Benefits of Betting

The NBA gets it. MLB gets it. Over in England, the Premier League definitely gets it.

The NFL … they’re still not totally getting it.

The NBA and MLB (and Premier League) have embraced streaming and non-traditional broadcast. Monetizing non-traditional broadcast is still not as robust as traditional TV advertising. Getting a cut of betting action serves three purposes: 1) it (in theory) gives the NBA and MLB more financial resources to ensure the integrity of their product (hence the “integrity fee”), but more importantly, 2) it provides a new revenue stream, and 3) it potentially boosts ratings and streams of their product, leading to increased ad revenue.

What the NFL Can Learn from Golf

Let’s at a minimum agree that daily fantasy is sports betting light. Money is being placed on the outcome of sporting events with the opportunity to win more money.

NFL ratings were peaking in September 2015 at the height of the DraftKings and FanDuel advertising wars.

DraftKings (which is reportedly making an every-so-slight pivot to sports betting) and FanDuel got bent over by the Fed in October of 2015. Not all DFS sites exited all markets right away. A solid chunk of that 2015 NFL season existed with sports betting light. 2016 and 2017 can’t say that.

However, there is definitely some noise around that ratings dip that *may* not be attributable to daily fantasy. Maybe Kaepernick and concussions are to blame for some of the dip.

Do you know what sport couldn’t be at less of a risk of concussions or minorities kneeling at literally any time other than to get a line on a putt? Golf. Let’s take a look over there.

The ability to gamble on golf via daily fantasy absolutely juiced its ratings. In fact, over the past 20-ish years, you can definitively point to two things that moved the needle on golf viewership: Tiger Woods and DFS.  Notah Begay, Davis Love III and Louis Oosthuizen aren’t bringing the eyeballs.

If 2015 was so solid, how is 2017 doing? Oh, not so great you say?

You Watch When You’re Invested

There is not a lot of science here: people are going to watch something they’re invested in. That investment could be emotional (think This is Us) or, erm, financial (think sports).

The solution is simple for the NFL. Undo the damage your wrought from the UIGEA and get behind gambling. People bet, people watch, ratings go up, leagues collect “integrity fees,” more ad dollars pour in, and you sell broadcast rights for more money. Everybody wins.

Except, of course, the gambler. Because only Haralabos Voulgaris wins at gambling. Everyone knows that.