And yet, by the metric most important to teams’ bottom lines, the NFL is thriving: People are watching.
Through the Week 3 games, viewership of NFL games on television and digital platforms this season is up 4 percent from last year. Of the top 20 most-viewed programs on TV since the season started, 19 have been NFL games (the other is a Democratic presidential debate).
“What’s that saying about all publicity being good publicity?” a high-ranking executive with one NFL team asked. “I don’t know if I buy that in every circumstance. But you’d have to say, at least, the negative stories that have been in the news cycle haven’t been a hindrance” to viewership.
NFL viewership was up 5 percent last season; there was an average of 15.8 million viewers per broadcast during the 2018 regular season, excluding games in London. Of the top 50 telecasts during the NFL regular season, 46 were NFL games.
Last season’s increase reversed a two-year trend of declining NFL viewership. That included a decline of 9.7 percent in a trying 2017 season for the NFL that included a polarizing controversy, amplified by President Trump, over players’ protests during the national anthem.
NFL leaders at the time generally downplayed any connection between the controversy over the protests and TV viewership, focusing instead of the quality of the on-field product and the health of star quarterbacks over the course of a season. By last season, the controversy over players’ protests mostly had dissipated and standout quarterbacks generally remained healthy and on the field, producing a high-scoring and appealing style of play that was attractive to viewers.
The NFL hoped to showcase those star quarterbacks and the play on the field this season in its celebration of its 100th anniversary. Instead, headlines have been dominated by Brown, who was released by the New England Patriots while the NFL investigated allegations by two women against him of rape, sexual assault and intimidation.
The officiating woes that reached a crescendo during last season’s NFC championship game have continued into this season. Meanwhile, several star quarterbacks haven’t been on the field. Andrew Luck retired from the Indianapolis Colts before the season. Eli Manning was benched by the New York Giants. The New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Nick Foles were injured.
But the NFL has marched onward, with its TV viewership continuing last season’s recovery. Rookie Daniel Jones had a captivating debut Sunday after replacing Manning as the Giants’ starter. Fellow quarterbacks Kyle Allen of the Panthers and Gardner Minshew II of the Jaguars also demonstrated star potential. The other off-the-field news has not led viewers to turn away.
“Whether it’s on or off the field, in season or out, there’s a soap opera going on every day,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in an interview with CNBC earlier this month. “It’s a gift to television because it’s constantly on the forefront of attention and interest.”
The NFL has leaguewide revenue of about $15 billion per year, derived in large part from income from national broadcasting contracts that is divided equally among the 32 franchises. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke during an interview just before the season about the league’s new entertainment and social justice partnership with music mogul Jay-Z, he mentioned an effort to broaden the league’s appeal.
“It’s about making our entertainment better,” Goodell said then. “It’s about appealing to a broader audience, particularly younger demographics.”
Owners are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. The current CBA runs through the 2020 season. If owners get their way, a deal with the players could include an expanded set of NFL playoffs and/or a 17-game regular season.
The extra games in a new CBA, along with ongoing labor peace, would bolster the NFL’s negotiating position in bargaining for its next round of broadcast deals. The NFL’s “Monday Night Football” deal with Disney-owned ESPN expires after the 2021 season. Its contracts with other networks expire after the 2022 season.
“We all know it would be better to get something done now [with the NFLPA] than two years from now when you could possibly have work stoppages,” Jones said in his CNBC interview. “This would allow us to have a great platform of continuity, an agreement for years, that we can go to the networks and address streaming, address what our game is going to look like on that tube.”
The NFL has remained the strongest property on TV even while the league and the broadcast industry have struggled to deal with the changing dynamics of cord-cutting and content increasingly being consumed on phones and tablets.
“In general, all television has depreciated, the viewership,” Jones said. “If you will, it has gone to those handheld [devices]. It has gone to other areas. And of course the NFL wants to be a very substantive part of the alternatives to the traditional television screen …. The idea of where we are with our viewership is so much stronger than when I got in the NFL in 1989 or when Fox came in in the early ‘90s. We’re really in a very strong position.”