TV Sports Execs Debate How to Improve NFL Ratings

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Many point fingers at the election for the decline in viewership, but quarterbacks, added coverage in the form of 'Thursday Night Football' and millennials' preferences are also mentioned.

The NFL's weaker TV ratings early this season were in focus at the 44th annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference this week.

Former HBO Sports president Ross Greenberg of Ross Greenberg Productions, Tony Ponturo of the NYU Tisch Institute for Sports and executive coach for Turnkey Sports & Entertainment and others discussed the NFL brand, its audience appeal and possible challenges during a Wednesday panel, with some suggesting that the added exposure from Thursday Night Football may be hurting ratings.

CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves on Monday blamed the less-than-stellar ratings for NFL games early this season on star quarterbacks Peyton Manning, who is retired, and Tom Brady, who was suspended for the first four games this season, as well as Donald Trump, because his presidential campaign showdown with Hillary Clinton drew much coverage and attention.

Moonves also pointed out that ratings have made a comeback in recent weeks, and he predicted by the end of the year the overall numbers for NFL games would be "down a couple of points," which he described as "not a big deal."

CBS Corp. chief research officer David Poltrack also told the UBS conference on Monday that "incremental competition from the coverage of the presidential race" was the key driver behind the NFL ratings trends. He said average ratings have been up 15 percent since Election Day, which was stronger than the gain recorded over the same period in 2015.

"Ratings are still running slightly below last year, but the gap is narrowing, and I believe it is going to narrow and probably eventually go away entirely," Poltrack said. He added that there was not "any reason to conclude that there will be any seminal change in the strong ratings performance of NFL football."  

Wednesday's panel of experts started off by discussing Moonves' explanation for the NFL ratings trends early in the season. Greenberg agreed that the presidential election was a key attention- and ratings-grabber and added that Moonves' comments also showed there was too much focus on quarterbacks, but he also suggested that there may be too many commercial breaks and not enough compelling on-field action, leading viewers to tune out.

"There are certain elements of the game that need to be fixed," Greenberg argued. "How many minutes by half hour are soaked up by commercials? ... And they need to do something about defensive pass interference. There are just a lot of things that need to be changed" to ensure faster and better games, he said.

Sports Illustrated media writer and columnist Richard Deitsch agreed that while the election was a key factor in the NFL ratings, "there is no one reason for the NFL’s decline." Many TV executives agree that "there are too many national windows and not enough attractive teams," he told the UBS conference. And "there’s a little bit of a down cycle for star quarterbacks."

Explaining how advertisers feel about the lower ratings this season, Ponturo said: "You don’t like that ratings are down, because the conversation suggests there is something wrong with the brand."

He cited domestic violence news, the debate about concussions, coverage of quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling in protest during the National Anthem and other factors as affecting the fun the NFL brings in people's minds. "All these things have cluttered my enjoyment of just watching a game," he said.

Ponturo also said that adding Thursday NFL games has meant that the football league has been cannibalizing its own audience. As smart as NFL executives are, they "weren’t considering that they were ultimately cannibalizing themselves and there was too much content," he said.

Ponturo suggested that the NFL could end putting on Thursday games, while other panelists said that the revenue the league gets from the TV rights for them would likely mean they would continue. 

Panelists agreed that the NFL RedZone network also is affecting viewership as its audience moves out of the Nielsen-rated TV universe. 

Greenberg suggested that changes to the production of NFL live broadcasts, including taking viewers closer to the action via microphones and lower camera positions, could draw more younger viewers and improve ratings. "Millennials aren’t going to ... keep watching what in their opinion is a staler product," he argued.

But despite the lower audience trends this year, Greenberg also reminded the UBS conference attendees of the broad appeal of the NFL. "It still has tremendous [power] in the marketplace and makes a boatload of money for networks” and others, he said.

 

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