The NFL is arguably the most important media property for television networks, for advertisers and MVPDs alike. On a live + 3-day basis, NFL games accounted for 8.6% of all TV viewing during the first five weeks of this season, and a significantly higher share of the viewing for networks with rights to air its games, including CBS, Disney’s ESPN, Fox, NBC and the NFL Network.

With higher-than-average pricing for ad inventory, the programming is disproportionately important beyond those viewing shares in terms of ad revenue, which marketers prize because of the still-relatively high ratings (and thus efficient spending given the limited unintended audience duplication vs. aggregating similar volumes of gross ratings points from buying a greater number of units on lesser-rated programs). Networks’ affiliate sales efforts and the health of the market for retransmission consent holds up in part because of the value of the programming to consumers, who are in turn generally willing to pay relatively more to their MVPDs for access to that programming as well.

As a result, there has been a significant amount of attention placed on reported declines in NFL viewing this season. While there are many theories as to what has driven this outcome, we wanted to review data from Nielsen for ourselves, covering the first five weeks of the season to look at whether or not several different sub-segments of the population may have driven these outcomes or whether bigger effects are at play.

For consistency, we have measured viewing in person-hours (which accounts for duration of programs as well as the addition or subtraction of programs. This is the most comprehensive and consistent measure we can think of to capture the consumption of a media property). Importantly – and representing a component of an analysis that we have not previously considered – we also looked at viewing in person-hours per person, which accounts for the changes in the weighting of different audience groups within Nielsen’s panel. We looked at Live + Same Day and Live + 3 Day viewing, which generally exhibit identical trends as little of this programming is time-shifted. Unless noted otherwise, all data below refers to Live + Same Day data. We also looked at different sub-segments within adults 18-49 and people 2-99 to provide a sense of differences that may be driven by age. Note that data captured here does not include non-Nielsen rated programming, such as NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV.

Over the first five weeks of the current NFL season, aggregated viewing in terms of person-hours has declined by -13.2% on a live + same-day basis (or -13.1% on a live + 3-day basis) for all people 2-99. Against adults 18-49 viewing has declined by -14.1% on a live + same-day basis (or -14.0% on a live + 3day basis). However, the viewing per person is slightly worse at -14.6% on a live + same day basis for people 2-99 and -15.1% for adults 18-49. The incremental declines are because current year results are boosted by growth in the population.

It appears the decline is at least partially specific to NFL game programming rather than to football or total TV consumption, as college football programming on a live + same-day basis is up by +0.5% among all people 2-99 during the same periods of time in both 2015 and 2016 and total TV consumption is up by +2.2% (or +2.1% on a live plus 3-day basis).

The source of this outcome is widely debated, with pundits suggesting the following among the sources of decline:

  • Poor game match-ups
  • Missing talent
  • Viewing shifts to election-related programming
  • Competition from online streaming services
  • Counter-reactions to national anthem protests
  • Content saturation

While we can’t opine definitively on which factors are driving changes in viewing, we can use our respondent-level data from Nielsen to identify some aspects contributing to the decline, and make additional inferences from there. Below is a table of viewing shares and growth trends of NFL, College Football and total TV for the total population and various segments.

Looking where the changes in viewing per person are significant vs. the overall averages, we note a significant difference in viewing per person growth when comparing households with more than $75k in income and those with less. Within homes with more than $75k in income, viewing declines are -14.1%, but in homes with less than $75k in income, viewing declines are -19.0%. The difference is more pronounced among adults 18-49, where viewing per person among higher income homes is down 14.1%, while viewing per person among lower income homes is down -28.0%. Viewing per person in homes in A counties (those within the largest 25 cities and related metro areas) declined by -14.0%, while people in homes in B counties (counties outside of the largest 25 cities with populations exceeding 150,000) exhibited a more pronounced decline of -17.0%.

Blue Collar households are exhibiting more significant declines than White Collar households, with an -18.7% per person decline among Blue Collar viewers aged 2-99 but only a -12.1% decline among White Collar viewers. Ethnicity also appears to demonstrate a difference among younger audiences, as people aged 18-49 with a Black head of household reduced viewing per person by -9.7% while people aged 18-49 with a White head of household reduced viewing per person by -15.2%. College education among younger audiences also appeared to make a difference, as those with 4+ years of college reduced viewing per person by -15.5% while those without reduced viewing per person by -18.2%.

Among the variables we looked at here, the presence or absence of children in a household appeared to make no meaningful difference in viewing trends, and viewing in C and D counties (those which are smaller than A and B counties) generally exhibited trends that were similar to the overall average.

So what does all of this mean? Our biggest take-away is that viewing declines of NFL Football are significant relative to both the sport of football and TV more generally, and that declines are relatively widespread among different groups of people. While still can’t say whether or not this is because of the game match-ups, on-field talent or anthem protests, the relatively more-pronounced declines among lower income, blue collar, white and less urban audiences may provide additional clues for further investigation as the season progresses.