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The NFL Has A Bigger Problem Than Kneeling Employees — Demographics And Trends

A recent top news story has been NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.  The controversy was amplified when President Trump weighed in with objections to this behavior, and his recommendation that the NFL pass a rule disallowing it.  This kind of controversy doesn’t make life easier for NFL leaders, but it really isn’t their biggest problem.  Ratings didn’t start dropping recently, viewership has been declining since 2015.

LANDOVER, MD – SEPTEMBER 24: Washington Redskins players link arms during the national anthem before their game against the Oakland Raiders at FedExField on September 24, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

NFL ratings stalled in 2015

NFL viewership had a pretty steady climb through 2014.  But in 2015 ratings leveled.  Then in 2016 viewership fell a whopping 9%.  During the first 6 weeks of the 2016 regular season (into early October)viewership was down 11%.  Through the first 9 weeks of 2016 ratings were down 14% before things finally leveled off.  Although nobody had a clear explanation why viewership declined so markedly, there was widespread agreement that 2016 was a ratings crash for the league.  Fox had its worst NFL viewership since 2008, and ESPN had its worst since 2005.

Interestingly, later analysis showed that overall people were watching 5% more games.  But they were watching less of each game.  In other words, fans had become more casual about their viewership.  People were watching less TV, watching less cable, and that included live sports.  And those who stream games almost never streamed the entire game.

And this behavior change wasn’t limited to the NFL.  As reported at Politifact.com, Paulsen, editor in chief of Sports Media Watch said, “it’s really important to note the NFL is not declining while other leagues are increasing.  NASCAR ratings are in the cellar right now.  The NBA had some of its lowest rated games ever on network television last year… It’s an industry-wide phenomenon and the NFL isn’t immune to it anymore.”  So the declining viewership problem is widespread, and much older than the recent national anthem controversy.

Live sports is not attracting new, younger viewers

Magna Global recently released its 2017 U.S. Sports Report.  According to Radio + Television Business Report (RBR.com) the age of live sports viewers is scewing older.  Much older.  Today the average NFL viewer is at least 50.  Similar to tennis, and college basketball and football.  That’s second only to baseball at 57 – which was 50 as recently as 2000.  But no sport is immune. NHL viewers are now typically 49.  They were 33 in 2000.  As simple arithmetic shows, the same folks are watching hockey but few new viewers are being attracted.  Based on recent trends, Magna projects viewership for the Sochi Olympics and 2018 World Cup will both decline.

I’ve written before about the importance of studying demographic trends when planning.  These trends are highly reliable, even if boring.  And they provide a lot of insight.  In the case of live sports watching, younger people simply don’t sit down and watch a complete game.  Younger people have different behaviors.  They watch an entire season of shows in one day.  They multi-task, doing many things at once.  And they prefer information in short bursts – like weekly blogs rather than a book.  And they are more interested in outcomes, the final result, than watching how it happened.  Where older people watch a game play-by-play, younger people simply want to know the major events and the final score.

To understand what’s happening with NFL ratings we really don’t have to look much further than simple demographics — the aging of the U.S. population — and the change in viewing behavior from older groups to younger groups.

Unfortunately, according to a recent CNN poll, while 56% of people under age 45 think the recent demonstrations are the right thing to do, 59% of those over 45 say the demonstrations are wrong.  In its “core” NFL viewership folks don’t like the kneeling, so it would appear the NFL should heed the President’s advice. But, looking down the road, the NFL won’t succeed unless it finds a way to attract a younger audience.  With younger people approving the demonstrations NFL leadership risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater if they knee-jerk control player behavior.

Understanding customer demographic trends, and adapting, is crucial to success

The demonstrations are interesting as an expression of American ideals.  And they are gathering a lot of discussion.  But they are not what’s plaguing NFL viewership.  Today the NFL has a much bigger task of making changes to attract young people as viewers.  Should leaders shorten the game’s length?  Should they change rules to increase scoring and create more excitement during the game?  Should they invest in more apps to engage viewers in play-by-play activity?  Should they seek out ways to allow more gambling during the game?  Whatever leadership does, the traditions of the NFL need to be tested and altered in order to attract new people to watching the game if they want to preserve the advertising dollars that make it a success.

When your business falters, do you look at long-term trends, or react to a short-term event?  It’s easy for politicians and newscasters to focus on the short-term, creating headlines and controversy.  But business leaders have an obligation to look much deeper, and longer term.  It is critical we move beyond “that’s the way the game is played” to looking at how the game may need to change in order to remain relevant and engage new customers.

Note how boxing recently brought in a mixed martial arts fighter to take on the world champion.  The outcome was nearly a foregone conclusion, but nobody cared because it brought in people to a boxing match that otherwise would not have been there.  If you don’t recognize demographic shifts, and take actions to meet emerging trends you risk becoming as left behind as cricket, badminton, horseshoes, bocce ball and darts.