NFL kicks off its 100th season with a 9 percent ratings hike
Welcome to another edition of Ad Age Sports Media Brief, a weekly roundup of news from every zone of the sports media spray chart, including the latest on broadcast/cable/streaming, sponsorships, endorsements, gambling and tech.
The only game in town
The NFL, its media partners and their advertisers closed out Week One of the league’s centennial season feeling understandably chipper about the near future—even if the product itself wasn’t always terribly compelling (the average margin of victory in Sunday’s two marquee windows was 23.5 points). According to Nielsen, ratings for the seven blended NFL TV windows were up 5 percent year-over-year, with an average draw of 17.1 million viewers and a 9.9 household rating.
To the surprise of nobody who’s been paying attention to this sort of thing, the NFL’s top draw was the Fox “America’s Game of the Week” showcase, which has put up TV’s highest numbers for a decade. Dallas’ convincing 35-17 home win over the Giants averaged 23.9 million viewers and a 13.5 rating, good for a 3 percent lift vs. the analogous Cowboys-Panthers opener in 2018. The combination of the league’s top draw and its top-DMA-repping conference rival established Sunday afternoon’s game as the 15th most-watched broadcast of 2019, earning the slot just below the College Football Championship Game on ESPN.
Meanwhile, as much as it’s hard to imagine why anyone who doesn’t refer to ice cream sprinkles as “jimmies” would want to sit through the Patriot’s 33-3 vivisection of the Steelers, Sunday night’s blowout and Thursday’s lackluster 17-punt NFL Kickoff Game didn’t have a deleterious effect on NBC’s ratings. Together the two primetime broadcasts averaged 22.2 million viewers and a 12.8 rating, good for an 8 percent year-over-year lift. This is a particularly remarkable achievement, given the ongoing erosion in broadcast prime and the fact that sooooooo many fans have boycotted the NFL forever because some players expressed ambivalence re: being shot by police. Go figure.
The hits just kept coming, as ESPN capped off the opening week of the NFL’s 100th season with two riveting matchups, for which the cable network was rewarded with an 18 percent year-over-year ratings bump. The “Monday Night Football” doubleheader marked ESPN’s best opening night in four years, and when blended with the three other national windows, brought the league’s coast-to-coast average to 22.7 million viewers, up 9 percent vs. Week One of the 2018 campaign.
The weekend’s lone ratings stumble occurred during CBS’s Sunday afternoon regional coverage, which was plagued by one-sided blowouts. Of these early games, perhaps none gave the NFL more pause than Cleveland’s ugly 43-13 loss to Tennessee. After instilling league higher-ups and network suits with a sense of irrational exuberance—off-season enthusiasm for the team was such that a bidding war of sorts erupted over the Browns, a team that hasn’t so much as won its division in 30 years—Cleveland reverted to its old habits.
Would-be savior Baker Mayfield threw three passes that were picked off (one of which was run back for a touchdown) and clawed out a measly 24.8 adjusted QB rating, a performance that flew in the face of the Browns’ Next-Big-Thing status. Cleveland this season is scheduled to appear in no fewer than six national TV windows, none of which are eligible to be flexed out for something more promising. And while the regional game was available in just 27 percent of all TV homes, it coincided with a 10 percent drop in the ratings for CBS’s early single-header.
Cleveland’s next challenge will unfold in a national window, as the Browns travel to New York to take on the Jets in their first “Monday Night Football” appearance since 2008. In a nod to the NFL’s ongoing anniversary celebration, the Browns-Jets game is a rematch of ABC’s first-ever “MNF” broadcast on Sept. 20, 1970. Forty-nine years ago, Cleveland won that battle; if it loses next week’s showdown, an awful lot of network execs are going to feel the bite of buyer’s remorse.
Tell me whyyyy
Now that the first batch of data points has been crunched, a whole bunch of NFL observers are trying to figure out why the Week One ratings were so strong. This is a compulsion that is perhaps unique to sports and endemic to football; when the ratings fell in 2016 and 2017, much of the peripheral chatter had to do with Who or What was to blame for the sudden downturn in the league’s televised turnout. The most popular theories were completely wrongheaded and ill-conceived and were in no way supported by the data, so let us never speak of them again.
The L.A. Times’ Stephen Battaglio this week unearthed one of the more compelling theories in an interview with Mike Mulvihill, executive VP for research and league operations at Fox Sports. Mulvihill’s analytic mind tells him that high-octane offense (or, more specifically, offensive efficiency) has helped boost the NFL’s TV audience. “There is a more aggressive philosophy being taken by head coaches that is also contributing to a more entertaining product,” Mulvihill says. “The number of two-point conversion tries last year was the highest in 25 years. Fifty-six percent of fourth-down tries resulted in a first down. That makes for a few more exciting moments [in] every game.” Mulvihill also notes that an influx of young superstars such as Patrick Mahomes and Saquon Barkley has helped rejuvenate a league that has seen high-profile players like Peyton Manning leave the game.
The day after the NFL season kicked off, Mulvihill made another appearance in Jacob Feldman’s Sports Illustrated column, where he talked up the ways in which Fox and CBS are using third-party data analytics and modeling in order to get a firmer grip on “how social media activity or NFL shopping trends might predict local interest for various matchups.” As Mulvihill explains, a flexible afternoon schedule that transcends mere geographic considerations makes for a “more fan-friendly product.”
Yet another theory that’s been advanced to explain the NFL’s recent success has to do with the rise of legalized gambling. Media consultant and former Horizon Media research guru Brad Adgate tells Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy that football is luxuriating in the sort of heightened interest that occurs when someone lets $1,000 ride on the Cincinnati Bengals. (Ed. note: Do not bet $1,000 on the Cincinnati Bengals.) “I think the legalization of sports gambling is a primary reason for the strong opening weekend,” Adgate says. “There are two ways to increase Nielsen ratings; one is to get more viewers, the other is to have the viewers watch longer. With gambling, I think more viewers watched longer to see if the games had covered the spread.”
Of course, the same can probably be said for fantasy football, and while one should never speak of one’s virtual roster outside of the confines of league play—literally no one cares that you picked Tyrell Williams off the waiver wire—let it be known that my team last week beat George Slefo’s squad by a score of 146.1 to 142.4, thanks in large part to Tyrell Williams. Take that, Georgie Deep Dish.
While watching Eli Manning pull faces in Dallas last Sunday, I began to sense that something was missing from the Fox broadcast. It wasn’t that the Giants quarterback had somehow managed to throw 44 passes without being picked off so much as once; no, the absence had less to do with what transpired on the field than what was going on during the commercial breaks.
Then it hit me. About two hours and three Ford F-150 commercials into the Fox broadcast, I realized that at no point had Denis Leary sneered at me or addressed me as “Chief” while exhorting me to buy a pickup truck. Did the comedian/actor/pitchman extraordinaire part ways with Ford? If so, which Hollywood A-minus-lister would take the torch from the “Operation Dumbo Drop” star? Which sticky-fingered nightclub comic would hoot “OK, Pal?” while shaming me into purchasing a vehicle that I cannot drive, for the purpose of hauling lumber that I do not covet up a muddy incline that doesn’t appear to be anywhere near my home in leafy, infant-infested Park Slope?
Turns out: Bryan Cranston. But as Ad Age’s E.J. Schultz reports, Ford says we haven’t heard the last of Leary—even if the automaker can’t say for sure when he’s expected to begin shilling again.
After being confronted with socially profligate fans’ full-throated howls of indignation, ESPN took the unprecedented step of changing the on-screen graphics for the second half of its Texans-Saints “Monday Night Football” telecast. Viewers groused about the network’s new on-screen down-and-distance marker, a neon-yellow bug in the lower right-hand corner of the screen that looked for all the world like the graphic that pops up whenever a flag is thrown.
Rather than suffer further abuse at the hands of DawgsFan42069 and millions of other undermedicated wags, ESPN replaced the yellow bug with a “black-and-white version that much more closely resembled the rest of the game info chyron,” reports the New York Post’s Michael Blinn. As much as ESPN should be heaped with praise for making the fix in real time rather than send the matter to an in-house committee that would likely spend the next several days in boisterous, shouty rumination, the network with its quick response may have opened a Pandora’s Box of Things That Smell Bad. Once you start making production choices based on input from everyone with access to so much as a baud-rate modem, the mob will see to it that its voice is heard whenever something on the screen doesn’t tickle its fancy. Which “Sunday Night Baseball” worker bee is going to have to ask A-Rod to pipe down for half-a-minute because some mononym with 126,000 followers could use a respite from all the blahblahblah?
A Tree Grows in Framingham
Speaking of ESPN talent, when will Bristol figure out what role best suits Katie Nolan? Two years after spiriting away the digital native from Fox Sports (which, it’s fair to say, also had a hard time carving out a role for Nolan), ESPN still hasn’t made full use of the Bostonian sports fiend’s gifts. As the Post’s Andrew Marchand reports, it’s a tough spot all the way around, given how ESPN’s desire to boost subscriptions to its nascent direct-to-consumer service would seem to conflict with putting Nolan out in front of the largest possible audience. As such, Nolan’s nightly ESPN+ show will shift to linear TV as of Thursday, Sept. 26. Nolan’s ESPN2 program will air at 12:30 p.m. ET, which should allow the host to indulge more freely in her snarky late-night sensibility. That said, the move isn’t necessarily ideal, given that Nolan’s show will often air directly across the dial from Scott Van Pelt’s top-rated “SportsCenter.”
An analog sensation’s digital future
Disney’s $2.6 billion acquisition of a controlling stake in BAMTech spelled the end of its association with the WWE’s streaming product. In a comprehensive story posted earlier this week on The Verge, Chris Welch examines how the wrestling and entertainment juggernaut has approached its post-Disney relaunch and what WWE Network has planned for the coming weeks. (A free tier is in the works, but some of the most compelling content and features will be locked up behind a paywall.)
Field of Streams
John Skipper’s DAZN earlier this year approached the NFL to suss out whether the league would sell it the rights to stream DirecTV’s out-of-market Sunday Ticket package, for which the AT&T subsidiary pays on the order of $1.5 billion per year. But the NFL decided to preserve the status quo, at least for another year. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joe Nocera reports, a Sunday Ticket coup would instantly put DAZN on the map, in much the same way Fox’s $1.6 billion bid for CBS’s NFL rights package in December 1993 transformed Rupert Murdoch’s broadcast startup into a bona fide media powerhouse. But as Nocera sees it, DAZN will face stiff competition from the infinitely deep-pocketed Amazon; after all, Sunday Ticket is the asset most conducive to a disruptive investment. However it all shakes out, the NFL calls the tune to which the tech/media world dances with flailing, Muppet-armed abandon. A streaming deal will come when the league sets down its fiddle for a spell, and not a moment before.
On the heels of the NFL’s multiyear pact with TikTok, ageless and tomato-averse Patriots QB Tom Brady has launched his own account on the platform. Scored by a fragment of a Young Thug track, Brady’s first hype video offers fans a series of field-level clips from New England’s Sunday night beatdown of Pittsburgh before closing out with a potty-mouthed celebratory fist pump. Touchdown Tahwmmy’s filth talk was censored in postproduction because won’t somebody please think of the children.