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BROADCASTER-IN-CHIEF

In the age of streaming, the NFL is the last refuge for traditional TV

Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

From our Obsession

The Third Age of TV

First came broadcast, then cable, now streaming.

As many Americans ditch their traditional TV plans for streaming services, one thing hasn’t changed: The NFL is still an extraordinarily popular television product.

For the second straight year, TV ratings for the National Football League grew—while they declined for almost everything else. The average 2019 NFL regular season broadcast was watched by nearly 17 million Americans, up 5% from the year before. NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast was the most-watched program of the year for the ninth straight time, averaging 20.5 million live viewers per week. That was nearly double the average viewership of TV’s most-watched scripted series, NCIS. Forty-one of the 50 most-watched broadcasts of the year were NFL games (and all but five were of sports).

Overall primetime TV viewing, meanwhile, was down in 2019 for virtually every cable and broadcast network. (One of the only networks that didn’t experience a ratings drop was Fox, due in large part to its NFL telecasts.) Basic cable channels were hit the hardest: AMC and FX, for instance, each lost more than 20% of their viewers in the coveted 18-49 age demographic.

That’s because of cord-cutting. AT&T reported its fourth-quarter earnings this week, revealing that it lost 4 million pay-TV subscribers in 2019. The story was similar at most other cable TV providers. Comcast lost 732,000 subscribers (3.2% of its customer base) and said it expects more to drop in 2020 as the company shifts its focus to streaming.

The number of US households with a subscription to traditional TV provider drops each year, and no one expects it to rebound. In 2019, there were 86.5 million American households with such subscriptions, down from 90.3 million in 2018 and 100.5 million in 2013:

America’s most popular sport

The NFL is perhaps the one thing still preventing the pay-TV system of old from crashing entirely.

Survey after survey shows that access to live sports is one of the main reasons why more Americans haven’t cut the cord. Among pay-TV subscribers, 82% said they would get rid of their cable packages if they no longer needed them to watch sports, according to a 2017 survey by PwC. A 2018 survey by Deloitte revealed that 71% of Americans only keep their TV subscriptions to watch live content—a much higher percentage than any other reason provided.

Viewers consistently cite the NFL as a vital part of that live content. US TV watchers ranked the league’s games as the most important non-news type of program in a 2018 survey by the consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Company. Football has been Americans’ favorite sport to watch every year since the late 1960s, according to Gallup.

Networks know this, which is why they’re willing to pay inordinate fees in exchange for the rights to broadcast NFL games. CBS, Fox, NBC, and ESPN—the four networks that air games—combine to pay the league $5 billion per year. Even accounting for inflation, those fees nearly double each time the league negotiates a new contract with the networks (roughly every seven years). The existing contract expires in 2022, at which point the cost of TV rights are likely to increase again, even as there are fewer and fewer Americans who pay to watch those networks.

It’s unlikely the NFL will shift its strategy to the internet any time soon, beyond the simulcasts of Thursday night games that air on Amazon Prime (those rights will also be up in 2022). The league is not really in the disruption business, and it’s unlikely it would upend its primary revenue source and fracture its longtime, cushy relationships with the legacy networks in favor of streaming. But if cord-cutting accelerates, or if the networks suddenly decide they don’t want to pay the gargantuan rights fees anymore, the league could be forced to take streaming more seriously. Deep-pocketed tech companies like Facebook and Apple have suggested they’d be open to hosting NFL games in the future.

A unicorn in the age of streaming

The league can command the price tag that it does precisely because its TV ratings are such a unicorn in the era of streaming. It is the only type of content that can guarantee a large and diverse live audience. Ratings for major award shows are down across the board: The Oscars, which routinely brought in more than 40 million viewers a few years ago, is now lucky to get even 30 million.

Why the NFL is still so strong on TV—even as everything around it declines—is a bit of a mystery, but there are a number of theories. The rise of fantasy sports and legalized sports betting have helped the league weather the cord-cutting storm, keeping viewers engaged and bringing in new ones who might otherwise not care about the outcomes of games.

The product on the field has improved in recent years thanks to a surge of exciting new talent like quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, as well as a faster pace of play that has resulted in record-high scoring totals. The ratings briefly declined in 2016 and 2017, which US president Donald Trump blamed on Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests (and the subsequent boycott of the NFL), igniting a panic over whether the NFL could ever recover. It did: In 2018, the ratings jumped back up, and in 2019 they jumped even higher.

And the Super Bowl is in a class all its own. On Feb. 2, roughly 100 million Americans will tune in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers in a cultural event that transcends mere television. That may be the biggest reason why the NFL seems immune to cord-cutting: It is deeply ingrained in the collective American psyche in a way no other sport, award show, or scripted series can be. As long as that remains the case, broadcast TV isn’t going anywhere.