A Non-Judgmental Analysis of the NFL Rating Decline

Over the last week there has been a lot of discussion regarding the decline in NFL ratings this season.  The facts seem to be that the NFL is experiencing a weakness in prime time games that has resulted in an 11% drop in ratings.  The NFL has circulated a memo that cites a variety of factors such as the presidential campaign.  Notably the memo states that there is no evidence that “concern over player protests is having a material impact on our ratings.”

I have gone on record in multiple articles over the past few years talking about the likely impact of high profile or controversial events such as domestic violence incidents and concussions on NFL fandom.  My opinion has been that the NFL would continue to be strong and fans would continue to watch.  So what’s different now?  On this blog, the emphasis is almost always on data driven analyses.  In this case, it’s not possible to take that approach.  I would need much more detailed data on TV ratings and even then I likely wouldn’t have the ability to rule out different possible causes.

The NFL has suggested a confluence of events as the culprit.  I think this is true but perhaps not in the manner the NFL is implying.  I think the NFL is right that the presidential campaign is having an impact.  But I suspect it is having less of a direct impact due to people’s attention being shifted in a different direction.  College football does not seem to have experienced a decline in viewership.

I think it is the nature of the current political campaign and the emotions the campaign is generating.  This campaign has highlighted very distinct cultural differences.  The world views of Trump and Clinton supporters seem to be fundamentally different.  The potential problem is that a lot (majority?) of the NFL’s fan base may lean in the Trump direction while the protests lean in the Clinton direction.  In what follows I’m going to talk about this situation on a theoretical level.  I am making no value judgments about any protests or response to protests – I’m just looking at the marketing and branding issues.

Why are the protests potentially damaging to the NFL brand?  I think there are a couple of related issues.

First, the NFL has been known for shutting down individual expression by players.  Remember it is the No Fun League and it’s all about protecting the shield (brand).  Now, however, we seem to have a protest that is allowed.  And it is a protest with which many fans may disagree.  On some level the NFL seems to be changing its policies to accommodate the protests.  I think it is this “change” that may be the key issue.  Especially if the “change” is to accommodate something that is controversial to the core audience.  If a league is known for shutting down everything from TD celebrations to minor uniform violations then is not shutting something down an implicit endorsement?

The stridency of the current presidential campaign in terms of insiders versus outsider and political correctness makes this type of “authenticity” issue especially salient to certain segments of fans.  The impact may be  subtle.  It may manifest as a softening in enthusiasm or engagement with the NFL brand rather than a decrease in stated preference.  Fans still like the game and the players but maybe they are just not as compelled to watch.  (I don’t have access to the NFL’s data but this may be a tricky issue to assess using traditional marketing research techniques.)

The second, and related issue, is that there are other factors impacting the brand.  The current protests occurred in the wake of seasons that featured domestic abuse and the concussion issues.  The NFL brand may be resilient to any one event but over time problems can weaken the foundation.  This type of subtle brand weakness may be especially relevant given that the NFL is currently lacking some star power.  While the NFL is less of a star driven league than say the NBA, having Peyton Manning retired and Tom Brady suspended makes the league more vulnerable.