Has the NFL Lost a Step for Marketers?

All my life, NFL football has been the most popular, most important sport in America — perhaps the most popular and important event of any kind! But that popularity dipped in 2016. And on the eve of the 2017 season, I don’t feel like the league’s recovered.

All my life, NFL football has been the most popular, most important sport in America — perhaps the most popular and important event of any kind! The league just seemed to get more important every year, and the marketing space around it only became bigger and more valuable over that time.

But that popularity dipped in 2016. And on the eve of the 2017 season, I don’t feel like the league’s recovered.

NFL 2016: A Titan Stumbles

Coming into the 2016 NFL season, ad prices hit record levels. According to Kurt Badenhausen at Forbes and Standard Media Index, NFL ad revenue in 2016 hit $3.5 billion, a 3 percent increase over the prior year.

At the same time, over the course of 2016, NFL regular season TV ratings were down roughly 9 percent.

This did not pass without notice. Salon and ESPN were just two of many media outlets who openly asked, “What’s wrong with the NFL?”

AHas the NFL lost a step for maketers?nswers ranged from ratings competition with a contentious election season to cord cutters to the political and disciplinary controversies that seemed to envelop the league. Tom Brady, one of the league’s biggest stars, was suspended for several games, and some thought that alone accounted for the ratings dip.

But then the playoffs arrived, Tom Brady was back on top, and the Super Bowl was one of the five highest rated games in history (although it still had the lowest ratings for a Super Bowl in three years).

Dip traversed! The NFL was back … wasn’t it?

NFL 2017: Is Football Still Cool?

As a fan of the NFL, I have to say, this offseason was one of the least engaging I’ve ever seen. Around the office in Philadelphia — possibly the most intense football city in America — the sports talk seems quieter. Fewer younger colleagues are football fans … the sport has started to feel like, just maybe, it’s uncool.

Even around old sports fan friends, when I do talk about the NFL, there’s a 50/50 chance the talk will turn to  political aspects. We wind up talking about Colin Kaepernick, player discipline, Tom Brady and “Deflategate,” or other controversies around the game instead of the game itself.

With casual fans, concussions and CTE immediately come up.

But OK, those are just my circles; football isn’t really cooling off, is it?

Well, according to the league upfronts, where they actually sell those fabulously expensive ad,  it’s not just me. AdAge reported in June that interest in NFL advertising for the 2017 season was the softest it’s been since 2008 — the heart of The Great Recession. Ad prices are still rising somewhat — one source in the article says 2 percent to 4 percent this year — but there’s not a lot of excitement in the traditional media space.

The NFL is no longer entirely reliant on old media and the upfronts, though. Several social media networks have acquired rites to stream games themselves in recent years.

This year, Amazon is reportedly pricing ad packages around games at $2.8 million. In fact, Amazon’s packages would include a 30-second spot during the game, digital ads before and after the game, and a promise of unprecedented transparency into the ads’ performance and sales impact.

But is that enough to offset tepid TV advertiser interest?

This year is going to tell us a lot about the state of the NFL as a cultural institution, and as a marketing vehicle. Was last year’s dip just due to circumstance? Or is this marketing superstar finally past its prime?

Author: Thorin McGee

Thorin McGee is editor-in-chief and content director of Target Marketing and oversees editorial direction and product development for the magazine, website and other channels.

12 thoughts on “Has the NFL Lost a Step for Marketers?”

  1. lost its prime…too much politics, too many alternative options.Too many parents not allowing their children to play. The NFL will be a shadow to itself in just 5 years and in ten it will barley compete.

  2. The NFL has become a tool of the politically left networks and is now suffering from autoimmune disease…they don’t respect and talk down to their core supporters. They will take their money and run. Mark is correct, although I was guessing extinction within two decades.

  3. Could be that the audience is engaging with the NFL in other non-traditional channels… similar to the NBA which has far more fans engaged across social media platforms (per the CEO of the NBA during her presentation at the 2016 Adobe Summit)

  4. The politics of the NFL are so corrupt, the cheating (supported by Goodell’s relationship with the Patriots) so pervasive and the violence against women and children perpetrated by NFL players so widespread that American football is the new wrestling here in the U.S. (and honestly, that’s insulting to the ‘sport’ of wrestling). The fix is in with the NFL and people know it. Our frustration with the state of the NFL echoes with a combined anger over the current political unrest in this country to deny us anyplace where we can feel that competition is fair and the playing field equal. The expansion of viewing platforms/opportunities won’t fix what is inherently wrong with the NFL.

  5. For me, I think the biggest hit to the NFL is the Players going political. They disrespect the Flag and therefor the Fans. How can a football player making $10,000,000 per year claim that they have been oppressed? This is causing a huge cognitive dissonance.

  6. The death of the NFL has been greatly exaggerated. Ratings were down by double digits during the 2016 season – until the election. Ratings after the election jumped back up to a record pace, and the Super Bowl, with an unattractive matchup (Patsies again? uggh – Falcons – uggh), still produced close to record ratings and the highest share number ever for a Super Bowl. Those who want the NFL to be hurt by players taking a stand on social issues are merely exercising wishful thinking. The biggest threat to the NFL is cord cutting – cable subscribership peaked several years ago, driven in part by high prices, and in part by lack of compelling content. Sports is the one programming area other than breaking news that requires watching live, which is why it’s so important to access providers. The NFL isn’t dead yet – no matter how much you wish it were!

    1. I don’t. This year feels off. I don’t have numbers to support it in front of me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if NFL fandom is lower in Millennials than GenX, and even lower in Perennials.

      I totally agree hat cord cutting could be a huge factor in its own right. The NFL is so tailor made for network TV that the move to online viewing has got to be seen as dangerous to them.

      1. I know you don’t agree, Thorin – you wrote a whole article to say so. I posted a thoughtful response that offered the numbers – you offer back…umm…your feelings…

        I think the “feeling” you’re trying to get in touch with is the the unfortunate polarization of everything that used to be normal activity in this country. In the NFL, a league whose players are two-thirds African-American, a thoughtful player makes a stand on social issues and it becomes a cause celebre, with cries of “boycott”, while the league still draws on ties to the military and flies warplanes over packed-full stadiums.

        In the meantime, for god’s sake, we can’t even talk about the weather without it becoming political.

        So yes, if you’re saying that the NFL doesn’t loom so large while we have Nazis marching in the streets of an American city and a president who talks about the size of the crowd he draws when he visits a disaster site, then I agree.

        1. OK. Perennials are still a bit young to have robust research, but youth football participation is down significantly since 2010, and growth is happening largely in flag football, not tackle.

          And here’s research finding that Millennials are less interested in pro sports, and football in particular:
          “- For all the exposure the National Football League (NFL) has been receiving, teenage interest has fallen from 26% to 19% over the past two decades.
          “- In the case of the Canadian Football League (CFL), just 14% of teens say they are currently following the league, down from 22% in the early 1990s.”

          And that 4 out of 5 millennials trust the NFL less than any other professional sports league:

          Bubbles don’t expand forever. Football has been the dominant sport in US culture for the last 20 or 30 years, perhaps more. How long can you really expect that to continue?

          At some point, every popular sport becomes your father’s hobby.

          1. I will say this – I agree with your last sentence wholeheartedly. Boxing and Horse Racing were once two of the most popular sports in this country. My father loved both until the day he died.

            The stats you quote are generational. I’d bet I could have found similar stats about Little League baseball (which was ubiquitous when I was a kid) twenty years ago. Folks have been touting the demise of baseball for thirty years. Major League Baseball’s highest total attendance year ever? In the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s? Nope, it was 2007. It’s gone down since for reasons other than declining interest.

            The NFL’s biggest enemy is…the NFL. In their never ending greed,
            they’ve expanded and stretched their product offering until it hardly
            seems special. It feels like you can watch a game at almost any time
            and the result is most aren’t meaningful. But they’ll figure that out
            too – eventually. There’s too much money at stake.

          2. I think your baseball comparison is very relevant here. But from a ratings point of view, from a marketing point of view as an advertising vehicle, is there any argument that baseball is today what it was in the mid 20th century? My whole life football has been the dominant US sport, but I’ve talked to plenty of men who’re 10 to 20 years older, and they remember a time when baseball was the biggest deal. That hasn’t been the case pretty much my whole life.

            Baseball has ups and downs depending on how its national story goes (for example, it got great ratings in the late 90s when McGuire and Sosa were battling for the homerun records, the 2016 world series also did great). But the ups are exceptions to the norm. It’s not the marketing juggernaut football has been they past few decades.

            I don’t think football is going to die, but I think from an advertising point of view, these shivers in ratings and youth popularity look to me like it’s on its way to losing that juggernaut status. That’s the step I think it’s losing.

          3. I used baseball as a comparison to make a point – that the assumption that interest in baseball is dying is not entirely correct. Baseball metrics have always been different from football’s and baseball has never generated the TV ratings that football has. Baseball has a couple of issues:
            1) It’s not really a TV game – it’s ‘golden era’ of broadcasting was radio.
            2) There are too many games and too many unimportant ones. They need to shorten the regular season.
            3) Baseball has always been a regional, and not a national sport. Want an example of what I’m talking about? Get out of big metropolitan areas that have teams in both leagues – if it’s an American League town, the National League hardly exists in the news. Check that out.
            4) The games are too long for this generation – they need to be stimulated at every second. The need for stimulation spoils the joy of watching the game in person for the serious fan.

            In spite of ALL of this, MLB attendance is WAY up over 30 years ago, and revenue is through the roof. Baeball’s not dying.

            So, to get back to football – it’s not less important to folks – it’s just that other things are more important. I used to watch Mike & Mike on ESPN2 religiously every morning – now I watch Morning Joe to find out what kind of clownish tweet our president has made overnight. But I still watch football on Sundays.

            Be careful of what you read in the media in general. The word is that the retail industry is weak because of competition from on-line. Nonsense. Retail is weak because the nation is WAAAAY over-stored and the middle class is hurting and getting worse-off every day. A strong economy would bring retail back – but that strong economy isn’t happening until something is done to help the middle class.

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