NFL viewership has taken a massive dive. Can anything stop the drop?

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MetLife stadium with decorations for Super Bowl XLVIII. February 4, 2014. (photo: Anthony Quintano)

In a shift that has left major advertisers stymied, at least temporarily, NFL viewership continues to decline precipitously. Once-coveted advertising spots during primetime games are, even now, being deeply discounted as the NFL scrambles to compensate for the drop.

NFL execs are anxious to appease advertisers who have paid extraordinarily large sums to show their costly ads to extraordinarily large audiences- which have dwindled badly over the past year.

The NFL is hardly alone. The NBA has also experienced a sharp decline in viewership in 2020, though many industry experts blame the drop on an overall trend.

In 2020, only 3.04 million fans watched the NBA playoffs, down 37% from 4.83 million in 2019. The six game series of the NBA finals averaged about 7.49 million viewers, down a whopping 51%, making it the least-watched NBA Finals in history.

NBA Ratings Drop Not Due to Blowback Over Players’ Activism, Poll Suggests,” assures Forbes, sounding only slightly concerned over the “Poll Suggests” qualifier. Forbes may have a point. Some viewers may have been turned off by overtly political messages, but that certainly isn’t the only reason audiences have increasingly turned the channel.

In fairness, viewership was also down for the Stanley Cup Final and professional golf’s U.S. Open, by 61% and 56% respectively. There is also an overall decline in the rates of primetime television viewing in general. Industry experts often attribute this decline, which has translated correspondingly with declines in viewership for awards programs, to “cord cutting”.

In cord cutting, media consumers have increasingly turned to streaming services like Netflix, partially, it must be admitted, in an effort to escape advertisers. These major advertisers, it must also be admitted, along with their media network partners, have long been benefitting from a business model which requires consumers to pay for the privilege of viewing advertisements.

Other factors have played a roll in the declining rates of viewership for major sporting events as well. NBA games were delayed due to COVID-19 this year, leading to competition between major televised sporting events. Games have also been played in empty stadiums and arenas, with networks and professional sports teams doing everything they can to make the games seem more normal.

However, all the NFL’s digital programmers, cut-out printers, video-screen representations and other mad contrivances have not managed to overcome the uncanny valley and give the games a realistic live-audience feel.

In addition, sports bars, those ubiquitous bastions of professional and college sports fandom, have also been closed throughout the many long months of COVID-19 quarantine.

Now, even with a COVID vaccine, the future of massive sporting events is uncertain, at least in the short-term. There are no easy answers, no one cause for the drop in viewership and no sure-fire way of luring back wayward viewers.

The NFL’s race to placate its angry advertisers is perhaps the right play, but it is the wrong game. NFL industry executives should be courting NFL fans.

That need not require something to which NFL programming directors have become increasingly adverse. A patriotic display of feel-good American unity, of bearing up through adversity, would appeal a great deal to conservative audiences. To more liberal audiences, any such display would be seen as a deeply suspicious capitulation to the right wing at best; blatant and shameful political pandering at worst.

Luckily, the NFL already has everything it needs to avoid any such sticky scenarios. Namely, rap titan, media mogul and influential billionaire, Jay-Z.

The NFL, in a response to the high-profile kneeling protests of Colin Kaepernick- which led to more protests and hurt the league’s profitability- hired media mogul and billionaire Jay-Z to handle its entertainment for the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl half-time show has evolved over the last decades from a sideshow to a main event millions of people tune-in to watch, even if they don’t watch football or care about the game.

Who could forget the year Prince performed “Purple Rain” in the pouring rain?

Or the year Michael Jackson performed his famous moonwalk?

In recent years, the halftime show has been boycotted by a number of hot music industry talents who have eschewed working with the league due to their dismissive treatment of Kaepernick. 2020’s half-time show, which was produced by Jay-Z was far better received.

Building on this small spot of success, and harnessing the healing and unifying power of great music, NFL executives can easily draw audiences back into the story of professional sports, the heroes, the tragedies and legacies.

Fox’s WWE Friday Night SmackDown, after all, is enjoying excellent ratings and has risen in the television ranks to just below the NBA. Everyone loves a compelling story, human beings may even be “Wired for Story”.

Consider that while viewership for professional sports has dwindled, news viewership, on the other hand, has surged. The reasons for this trend are no doubt myriad and complex, as in most major shifts in public behavior, good and bad.

The rise of “click-bait” news, all those crafty headlines intended to trigger strong emotion and condition a certain response, has certainly played its part. You can’t frighten anyone into watching a professional basketball game, whatever the off-court antics of LeBron James, but you can frighten a news consumer enough to click on a headline or tune in at five.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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