Does the NFL have a viewership problem or engagement problem?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or were simply engrossed with the presidential election), you’ve probably heard that NFL ratings are down for the 2016 season. Through the season’s first 10 weeks, check out the drop in viewership for the NFL’s primetime games in 2016 compared to 2015, according to Michael Mulvihill, the executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy at Fox Sports.

Primetime national matchups

Sunday Night Football (NBC): -15%

Monday Night Football (ESPN): -17%

Thursday Night Football (CBS, NBC): -16%

Thursday Night Football (NFL Network): -25%

Daytime, regional broadcasts

CBS: -11%

FOX: -2%

Even now that the election has wrapped up, the ratings haven’t exactly rebounded to where they were a year ago. In Week 11, the ratings on NBC’s SNF were up slightly from Week 11 in 2015 (up 4%), but then cratered in Week 12 compared to the previous year (down 27%). For ESPN’s MNF, the viewership for Week 11 was down 17% before bumping up 29% in Week 12. On Thanksgiving, viewership for the daytime games on FOX and CBS were up 8% and 9%, respectively, while the primetime game on NBC was down 25%.

First off, make no mistake, the NFL is still unquestionably the most powerful programming on television and far and away the most profitable sports league in the country. Secondly, the election clearly had an effect on the ratings decline. However, any decrease in viewership — or the mere thought that fan interest has reached its peak and is trending downward — is bad news for the NFL, the media companies that pay billions of dollars annually to televise it, and for the sponsors that pay millions annually to advertise on it.

There have been plenty of hypotheses for root of the NFL’s ratings decline, but let’s look specifically at this episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines and the reasoning given by Mulvihill. Fox’s EVP states that the issue for the NFL and its TV partners isn’t that fewer fans are watching, but rather that fans aren’t tuning in to the broadcast for as long as they have previously.

“The reach of the NFL is the same as last year,” he said. “The number of people interested in the league is the same. The issue is that they’re spending less time with us week in and week out. They’re watching fewer minutes per game and when you multiply those statistics together, it’s a ratings drop. It’s an issue of time spent, not people turning away from the league entirely. We have to find out why people who are fans are spending less time.”

Mulvihill’s point is that the NFL doesn’t have a viewership issue – it has an engagement issue. The NFL needs to give people a reason to watch a majority/ entirety of the broadcast, not just a portion of it. The league/ networks need to give fans a reason to actually watch the game, rather than scanning for updates on Twitter, checking the stats of their fantasy team and watching the scoring plays on NFL RedZone.

The NFL needs an engagement tool like FanBeat! When fans have the ability to predict the action in real time and compete for prizes, they automatically become more engaged because they have a stake in the action. More than just picking players from random teams and hoping they pile up yards and score touchdowns, users can predict whether a team will pick up the first down on a key third-and-7, whether a key touchdown catch will stand after the play is challenged or how many total points two teams will combine for in the first half.

Just like traditional fantasy football, fans now have a stake in the action. However, the difference is that because FanBeat is in real time, the users have to watch the live broadcast in order to answer questions and compete for prizes. They can’t just pick their teams a few days beforehand and then pay casual attention on Sundays while checking Twitter and refreshing the live box score.

We’ve already seen that FanBeat increases engagement through our partnership with the Golf Channel and launch for the Ryder Cup. Of the viewers that tried FanBeat during the Ryder Cup, 56 percent said they enjoyed the Ryder Cup more because of FanBeat. In fact, 51 percent said they watched more Ryder Cup coverage because of FanBeat and a staggering 31 percent 5+ hours more coverage over the weekend!

We know that FanBeat can have the same effect for NFL viewers that it had for Ryder Cup viewers. As Mulvihill states, the NFL doesn’t have a fan viewership problem, but a fan engagement problem. FanBeat is the perfect fan engagement solution.




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