WASHINGTON — It’s halfway through the NFL’s 2016 regular season schedule and TV viewership is in freefall, down by an average of 20 percent, year-over-year.
The fans have noticed.
The players have noticed.
While everything from Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem to global warming has been used to rationalize the trend, Washington sports mogul Ted Leonsis has a far more reasoned explanation. He shared his thoughts with the Washington Post.
It starts with the NFL’s massive television contracts that made the league rich, but also locked them into an outdated medium. According to Leonsis, the future is in web-based consumption, not over the air broadcasts.
“The biggest issue that sport (football) is having is that if you have an older audience, they’re dying off,” Leonsis reasoned, rather bluntly. “And football was designed for television.”
And once upon a time, that marriage made sense. Even while millennials cut the cord on cable, football drew some of the biggest audiences in the world. That’s why the four networks (CBS, FOX, ESPN and NBC) paid $5.25 billion for those rights this year, which pays each team more than $200 million.
“It was the absolute perfect sport for TV, and training a generation of young males to assume they knew football,” Leonsis explained. “But the young people that they need aren’t on cable. So they have to get streamed highlights [via] Facebook, Twitter.”
The rise of the ubiquitous smartphone and social media have created opportunities for fans to see the highlights in real time without the filler. While most professional sports leagues are embracing the move to social media, the NFL is creating more barriers for teams to interact with fans.
Leonsis attributes the NFL’s demise in part to this decision.
“The NBA early on [recognized this opportunity], and guess what?” he asked rhetorically. “We trained a generation that was young that the NBA is cool and social and real-time. Same with the NHL.”
The NFL needs another seismic shift if it intends to compete for the attention of the younger generation. Broken down by age group, the NFL has only gained viewership in the 65 and older crowd, increasing by 5.1 percent between 2011 and 2016.
By contrast, viewership among high schoolers is down 36.2 percent, with college-aged viewership down 37.9 percent.