Study: NFL Needs to Rediscover Its Heart If It's to Overcome Ratings Slump

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New England Patriots fans during 4th quarter of Super Bowl LII earlier this month.
New England Patriots fans during 4th quarter of Super Bowl LII earlier this month. Credit: Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Like the proverbial group of blind men trying to identify an elephant by touching random parts of its body—it's a tree! it's a snake! it's a spear!—getting an informed read on the NFL's ongoing ratings slide has been an exercise in highly subjective interpretation. Ask 20 fans why they believe the league's popularity is on the wane, and like the sightless gropers of the metaphorical pachyderm, you'll get 20 responses, ranging from the political (players taking a knee during the anthem) to the pragmatic (the specter of repetitive brain trauma has made watching football an indefensible indulgence).

In the interest of trying to get at the heart of what's actually driving the ratings erosion—and whether it's beginning to impact the advertisers that buy time in and around the games—Horizon Media earlier this winter began an investigation into the matter. The results of the agency's multifaceted study are in, and while the NFL and its network partners may not find the data terribly reassuring, the good news is that many of the factors that have alienated fans appear to be remediable.

According to Horizon Media Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Hall, the results of the agency's study suggest that the recent disenchantment with the NFL may have less to do with the oft-repeated canard about politics and more to do with how the league itself is run.

"The real reason for decreased engagement is that the NFL has lost some of its heart and connection to its fanbase," Hall says. "Politics is a scapegoat—it's the easiest thing for people to point to as a reason for decreased interest in the NFL in general and tuning into games, specifically."

Hall says that by examining patterns in the data, Horizon was able to more precisely identify the underlying reasons that are driving fan behavior—conscious or subconscious, regardless of what people claim. "When we looked at it in this way, politics was lower on the list," Hall says. "The more salient patterns we've seen have to do with how the NFL seems to be losing its connection with fans, who feel the sports has become too much of a business, is less family-friendly and, in a sense, is losing its 'heart.'"

An NFL rep did not respond to requests for comment.

Bad behavior

According to the Horizon study, the "less family-friendly" rationale ranks within the top five reasons for decreased engagement for fans across all demographics—a factor for 65 percent of sports fans in the study—and much of that catch-all is related to player conduct on and off the field. The ugliness is hard to ignore. On the heels of the 2014 release of a video in which former Ravens running back Ray Rice can be seen punching his then-fiancée in an elevator, Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott this season was handed a six-game suspension after being accused of multiple domestic violence incidents.

If Rice and Elliott's actions weren't intolerable enough, the NFL's seeming inability to dole out proportional sanctions is nearly as galling. Elliott's punishment for allegedly beating up his girlfriend three times in the space of a single week was to sit out a half-dozen games; meanwhile, his teammate Randy Gregory was suspended for the entire season after once again testing positive for marijuana. (To be clear, this was Gregory's sixth infraction, but it's hard to see how "recidivist pothead" balances the scales with "accused batterer"; either way, those two examples go a long way toward explaining why many fans no longer find the NFL a "family-friendly" escape.)

Meanwhile, 61 percent of fans indicated that the NFL's business-first philosophy is taking much of the fun out of football, and another 59 percent suggested that the sport has become over-commercialized. Hall clarifies that the two notions speak to "the league's putting more emphasis on making money than connecting with the fans and a sense that there are too many advertisements during the games."

As for the more quotidian aspects of pro football, half (49 percent) of those who submitted to Horizon's analysis reported that they were less and less enchanted with the quality of the on-field product. That observation encompasses everything from a rule book that seems to lose coherence in proportion to the number of changes the league makes in the off-season to the season's spate of less-than-competitive games. For example, the average margin of victory in NBC's "Sunday Night Football" package was 12.9 points, the highest since 2014.

National asset

If much of Horizon's findings would seem to indicate that the NFL is losing touch with a good deal of its established fanbase, there is a silver lining. Michael Neuman, executive VP and managing partner of Horizon's Scout Sports and Entertainment Marketing unit, believes the league needs to learn how to reconnect with football enthusiasts who in recent years may have become alienated from the sport. The father of a teenage son, Neuman says the younger demos may well prove to be among the NFL's most stalwart supporters—if the league applies greater emphasis on the asset that is its national brand.

"As a marketer I always thought the value of NFL was in local relationships," Neuman says. "Now, with younger audience so involved in daily fantasy sports—my son is a huge RedZone guy—the value of the Shield actually may be more important today than are the individual franchises. As far as younger viewers are concerned, the NFL is more of national brand than a local brand."

Fantasy sports could go a long way toward making the millennials set (roughly speaking, adults 18 to 34) the key to rehabilitating the NFL's somewhat tarnished image. Not only do members of that particular demo consider themselves disproportionately loyal to the NFL, but their embrace of fantasy sports appears to have solidified their interest in the league. Better still, adults 18 to 34 are more likely than any other age group to say that the NFL bestows a positive halo effect on its sponsors. In other words, younger fans have a higher opinion of the brands that advertise in and around NFL games than do their older, more jaded counterparts.

While it might seem at odds with fan complaints about the over-commercialization of the NFL, in terms of positive halo effects, it's hard to imagine a better place for brands to experiment than during the post-touchdown ritual. Since relaxing its joyless rules governing celebratory activity, end zone extracurriculars have been a consistent source of fun and frivolity for the buttoned-down NFL. (Horizon last season was in "very advanced, serious conversations with clients about being a part of that experience," Neuman says, although the agency ultimately didn't get a post-score integration off the ground.)

The Horizon study was spearheaded by Sheri Roder, exec VP, chief of the agency's Why Group. Among the various components that went into the study were a proprietary survey of nearly 2,000 sports fans conducted during the final week in December, as well as Nielsen ratings data, social media analysis and insights derived from Magid's EmotionalDNA project.

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