The NFL’s Biggest Challenge? Keeping Younger Viewers

Sunday Night Football Ratings Cowboys Bears
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Analysis: The league's current woes may pale in comparison to an exodus of the younger viewers who could support the sport in the future

The National Football League has another problem.

Just as countless parties are tackling it over its handling of the recent Ray Rice controversy, its recent disclosure that its players are more likely than the general population to sustain severe brain injuries, and the news that Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson has been indicted on charges of child abuse, the NFL may have to contend with something potentially even more devastating.

Younger viewers are walking away from broadcasts of its games.

The average audience between 18 and 49 for NFL broadcasts across CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network has declined by about 10.6% over the last four seasons, according to Nielsen data prepared by Horizon Media, to about 7.7 million in 2013 from about 8.62 million in 2010. Meantime, male viewers between 18 and 24 watching the sport have also fallen off, tumbling about 5.3% in the same time period, to approximately 847,000 in 2013 from 894,000 in 2010.

“This segment is not passionate about the NFL like older age groups,” says Kirk Wakefield, executive director of sports and entertainment marketing at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. “The social status of NFL teams and players may be deteriorating compared to other pastimes or interests that are more personally engaging.”An NFL spokesman did not respond to a query about the ratings declines.

The falloff – declines in both categories of audience in each of the last four years – shows a cloud forming around what has in the last several years been a silver lining in the U.S TV business. Comcast, CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox and Walt Disney pay millions in rights to broadcast big-audience TV events like “Sunday Night Football” on NBC or “Monday Night Football” on ESPN. Indeed, CBS paid a reported $250 million to $300 million for permission to broadcast just eight NFL games on Thursday nights this season, in a deal that will allow the contest to run simultaneously on the league’s own NFL Network.

In this new era of people watching TV shows days and even weeks after their original air date, the NFL broadcasts offer a welcome blast of old-school: No one wants to watch a sports match after the clock runs out. And so the football shows generate healthy amounts of audience who watch live, all at once, without skipping the commercials that pay for them, in numbers that remind sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and Subway why they flock to broadcast TV in the first place.

But if the league and the networks can’t find a way to stoke growth among 18-to-49ers, their exodus is likely to make some advertisers reconsider the value of NFL games, and, subsequently, force the networks to wonder why they continue to fork over huge amounts of cash to televise it all.

To be certain, NFL football remains, perhaps, the biggest-ticket item on TV. ESPN’s most recent “Monday Night Football” lured an average of nearly 14.9 viewers overall, making it the most-watched program on TV that evening. One day prior, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football”won an average of 22.2 million viewers. And all five networks broadcasting NFL games saw their overall audiences for the broadcasts tick up noticeably in the 2013 regular season, according to Horizon’s Nielsen analysis, by an average of 4.7%.

Even as its overall viewership rises, however, the NFL audience has gotten older. Consider that in 2006, the median age for an NFL viewer was 45.8. By 2012, the median had risen to 47.1; in 2013, it was 48.4 – just skirting the edge of the 18-to-49 demographic advertisers say they covet most.

A continued decline in youth could undermine the NFL’s bargaining position (though that day is not likely to come soon). The NFL games are such a phenomenon in the current TV landscape that the league has explored the idea of asking musicians who perform at the halftime show of the Super Bowl to pony up some sort of compensation in exchange for their appearance. And who else but the NFL could get CBS to give The NFL Network top billing in the new logo for its “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts?

Some chunk of that young audience may be consuming NFL football in non-traditional means that are not easy to measure. Fox recently stuck a deal to stream more than 100 games, and ESPN streams “Monday Night Football” via a mobile app. The NFL has given the network broadcasting the Super Bowl the rights to stream the event over the last few years. And Verizon has a deal to transmit games via smartphones, for which it paid $1 billion in 2013 for a deal expected to last four years.

Yet there’s also an obvious dynamic at play: Once a property gets as big as the NFL is, how much growth is left? Viewership of the Super Bowl continues to break records. In 2014, about 111.5 million people tuned in to Fox to watch the event, according to Nielsen. But the second-most watched game snared an average of 111.3 million in 2012. Considering the first Super Bowl snatched just 24.4 million, it seems evident that the annual pigskin classic seems to be nearing the saturation point.

The NFL’s audience challenge comes as rival sports leagues  – who face similar challenges in keeping younger fans engaged – have new and energetic leadership. Adam Silver seems determined not to let issues of racism fester, and has moved decisively in the cases of both the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks, two teams whose top executives were caught making insensitive remarks about non-white players or customers. At Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred is set to succeed Bud Selig as commissioner and has had oversight of that league’s effort to root out players caught abusing performance-enhancing substances.

Are younger people turned off by the NFL’s current woes, or are they just turning off the TV set as part of larger shifts in culture and technology? “These are important issues for the NFL to explore,” says Rodney Paul, a professor of sport management at Syracuse University, “which hopefully will be investigated among many lines and disciplines in the near future.”

If they aren’t, perhaps a sport like soccer will gain at the NFL’s expense.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 21

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. hoplocalo says:

    lol, soccer gaining at the NFL’s expense? GET REAL. there’s nothing more uninteresting to your average american than a soccer game. one day god tried to conceive of the most boring game he could ever think of creating, and the result was soccer, the most boring sport on the planet. the only way soccer will have a chance of becoming popular is if every other game ever created ends up dying off. and even then, i bet people will still choose to stare at a blank wall than watch a soccer game. being an american comes with the god given right of being able to state forcefully that soccer blows, and that they aren’t interested in it, and never will be.

    • Jack says:

      I would rather watch paint dry than watch a second of American handegg. The only sport where if you are 150 pounds overweight you are considered an athlete. Lets see….game lasts three hours… 12 minutes of actual action…hmm, no wonder its ridiculed by 99% of the planet. although i have to give Americans a lot of credit, no one else could sit there for three hours, watching fat guys in spandex and endless beer commercials. By far, the most BORING crap( its not a sport) made for fat yanks.

  2. lbtlover says:

    Good. I can’t wait for sports to die. I’m younger (24) and NO ONE my age cares about sports. They’re boring, and so much of our tax dollars go to this BS. Why should the taxes (meaning everyone) pay to build stadiums and such? I never agreed to that. I respect that older people like to watch sports, but it should die with them. Sports are a great way to get exercise, but they’re way overblown in our society. Back in the 50’s and 60’s when there were 2 or 3 channels with musicals and other crap…..I could see why sports became popular back then. But with on demand access to any show you want, the ability to download anything to your computer, and 350+ channels, who would choose to watch sports when you didn’t grow up watching them? I will never waste my time watching sports. I’d rather watch commercials.

  3. Dan says:

    I’ve completely turned away from all sports – and corporate television – in the last few years. Granted, I might catch a game here and there, but the luster is gone for me. Given the current horrible political climate in the world, I’d much rather focus my time and energy on things that actually matter, and making a difference. Sports just don’t do it for me anymore. Plain and simple. This world is in a lot of trouble, and until noble people start to make a change – for the better – sports is a non starter for me. I’m only 30, so I’m still young, but my advice to the younger generation coming up is: focus on the things that matter. Sports isn’t one of them.

  4. RPO says:

    I have no idea what’s even happening in the playoffs this year. I am just not very interested anymore. If it were almost all-White, like the NHL, I might still be more interested. That’s certainly part of why I’m not really following it, but it’s not the only reason. I just find it so insignificant when I have far bigger things to think about. I can’t really bring myself to care enough anymore to root for a team. I played football when I was younger and was a big fan as well, so becoming so uninterested is not something I could have ever foreseen.

    • Jay Val says:

      Ooooooohhhhh, I see you are on Stormfront. Well, vent there with your comrades while the rest of the world marches.

    • Jay Val says:

      Very true that there are more important things to worry about. However, why are you white Americans so insecure when it comes to race. The main reason you don’t watch because there are too many black people. Even if it were all white, it’s still pointless.

  5. John says:

    Perhaps its just a case of young White people who have caught the NFL in its incarnation as the Negro Football League and are not interested in the sport because of it.

    Many older people watched the NFL when it was primarily White so just got sucked along the downward spiral.They developed a love for the game and tolerated,if grudgingly,the transformation from traditional White values to Black behaviors which includes Funky Monkey Victory Dances in the end zone,reports of spousal abuse and other abysmal crimes these Black players are committing,along with the brashness,vanity and arrogance the NFL is spiced with.

    And why would younger Whites even care about NFL when their chances of getting into the Negro Football league are slim to none,while the Blacks are all on scholarships which are paid for out of White tuition fees and Whites are not getting these scholarships any more..

    I would like to see Whites en mass turn off majority Black sports.Sports that were created by Whites in the first place and now have to pay thru the nose to attend one of these games to pay players insane amounts of money.

    • Jay Val says:

      Maybe whites should learn to play better. Funny how white people in Europe do well in their respected sports. Then again, most in Europe are not as insecure as you white boys State side are.

  6. James says:

    I take issue with the assertion that no one watches sports on a delayed basis. I consume about 30 hours a week – and none of it is live (except the odd time where I “catch up” to real time late in the fourth quarter the odd time). I have become spoiled by my DVR, and I will not watch any programming that forces me to watch commercials. The only live game I watch last year was the Super Bowl.

  7. Ed Gardo says:

    Maybe younger viewers can’t stand watching a constant stream of flags thrown for the smallest transgressions. Perhaps the video reviews to split hairs is a turnoff. Endless commercial breaks do not help. For all the problems off the field the NFL in their thirst for points has made the product on the field hard to sit through. I suggest watching the game on DVR an hour after kickoff. You can FF through commercials, halftime and reviews and catch up to the game late in the 4th quarter.

  8. Charles says:

    First of all, I used to be a football fan, but no longer. Being over 49 my opinion probably doesn’t count. With that said, the NFL has become the opiate of the masses that glorifies violence, encourages an us against them mentality..Pittsburgh hates Oakland etc., promotes undereducated thugs and criminals, knowingly allows drug abuse by its employees, has total disregard for the health of its employees, and makes a huge amount of money doing these things, particularly for its owners and gambling interests. One last item, why is the NFL a “nonprofit” organization under a special law enacted by Congress?

  9. srvwp2013 says:

    Yogi used to say, “You can observe a lot by looking.” Just about anyone, even in a badly illiterate America, can learn a lot by reading. I have boycotted the NFL for going on to two Seasons now. The NFL exercises a strangling on America. It takes a veritable revelation, and a development of utter disgust — such as the one Cosell had with Boxing– to realize that I was not profiting from the three hours it took to watch a football game. Everyone was paid but me. I have had my boycott on for going on to two Seasons now. That is not a large number in terms of Seasons, but it is a gigantic number in terms of hours. I have pulled the plug on Cable and broadcast. I have read a tremendous number of books during the hours I used to waste watching just Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football and their Pre-Game Analysis Shows.

    The NFL has drained America’s brain power and literacy. The NFL literally drains the mental and psychological health of its players and its viewers by the damage it inflicts. We already have a nation who’s health and medical situation is further strained by what is a lifetime of taking care of NFL Veterans and young NFL players who will only live as vegetables to grow old. It is well past time to curb the dementia induced in all of us by an organization which has basically become The Fourth Reich of America.

  10. L says:

    It’s because the NFL has too many sexist bullies who beat their wives. Simple. We’re not in an age of ‘macho men’ anymore. Younger guys don’t want to put up with it or associate with the macho man image because they have more forward and enlightened view of women and society as a whole. But the NFL can’t fathom the idea of acceptance and tolerance. Its good old boys club instead responds with some ridiculous so-called solution of taking Rihanna’s song off Thursday night football. A perfect example of the NFL’s misogynistic attitude towards women and its tendency to blame the victim for the actions of the abuser.
    It’s time for the NFL to change its overall view on abusers and violence. Just because violence is allowed in the sport does not mean it’s allowed outside of it.

  11. Don Meredith years ago on Monday Night Football used to sing a song,Turn out The lights the Party is over,a fitting song for the NFL today.

  12. Nietzsche says:

    Another reason why Nielsen ratings are shit. More youth are in fantasy leagues than ever before.

    Conversely, why has the NFL been trying to push into foreign markets with overseas games and the talk of an overseas team? Their growth market may be tapped. Go west young man.

  13. Connie Colvin says:

    I hope they don’t, football is a violent sport, and we would be better off without it. Better to watch Baseball, cycling, other things. Tennis, golf, some of the Olympic ones.

  14. Jacques Strappe says:

    A great, insightful article. I have been wondering for some time if youth was in fact that invested in NFL games and if the lofty overall ratings weren’t representing the whole picture.

More TV News from Variety