The 2016 NFL Season
Baseball may be America’s pastime… but football is its passion.
On Saturday, fans go wild watching college football in every state of the Union; Sunday, Monday and Thursday are just an extension of Saturday – the only difference being that the National Football League has skimmed only the very best players from the college ranks to create a style of game unique to our country. And the level of fan passion is so great that the NFL has become a year-round spectator sport even though the actual games are only played from September through December. And what occupies the attention of NFL fans the rest of the year? Oh, just about anything and everything… from the owners’ meetings; the college scouting combine; free agency; the NFL Daft; rookie mini-camps; organized training activities (OTAs); summer training camps; exhibition games… you get the idea.
But when the games count for real, you can count on ESPN (on Monday) and the NFL Network (on Thursday) to televise some of the most exciting games of the week – 30+ games last season. And based on the strong and steady ratings we’ve seen over the past four seasons, advertisers are sure to be rewarded with large, captivated audiences. Last season, for example, the ratings delivery for ESPN and the NFL network (combined) practically matched the record-level of viewing from the previous season:
Steady Ratings in a Tough Viewing Environment
What makes the performance of NFL on cable all the more remarkable is that traditional (linear) television usage levels have been slowly but surely declining with the growth of all things digital. So many of the shows we profile in this space have seen some level of audience erosion. But not the NFL on ESPN and the NFL Network! In a shrinking pool of total rating points, the share of viewing to NFL football on cable has been steadily rising, reaching its highest level in the past four years (10.60):
Shares of NFL Football on ESPN and the NFL Network are not only rising, they are also bringing in upscale viewers. For example, homes with an annual income of $175,000 - $199,999 attain a rating that is roughly 14% higher than the average U.S. TV household:
Local Market Ratings Premium
As is the case with all nationally televised team sporting events, the local DMA NFL ratings are higher in those markets that have a personal stake in the game (i.e., their hometown team.) For example, out of 17 games on ESPN last season, the median “home market” ratings lift was +20% (versus the national U.S. household rating.) Source: Viamedia analysis of comScore TV Essentials ® Data
But the real local market ratings story happens to be within those DMAs that are adjacent to (or nearby) NFL home team markets. And that’s because – when a team appears on ESPN Monday Night Football – that team’s home DMA market must simulcast ESPN on a local broadcast station. All of which serves to dilute ESPN ratings within the team’s hometown DMA. But no such broadcast-carry rule applies for nearby DMAs, where fan support is usually as high (if not higher) than the team’s home market DMA.
The heat map below makes this very clear.
Last October, the Pittsburgh Steelers visited the San Diego Chargers. The Pittsburgh DMA household rating of 11.7 was 25% higher than the national ESPN average rating (9.3). But in four adjacent DMAs – where local broadcast stations did not simulcast the game – the ratings went through the roof with the Wheeling and Johnstown DMA ratings almost double that of the Pittsburgh market:
In the chart below, we’ve listed several ESPN games from last season in which the adjacent (or nearby) DMA ratings far surpassed that of the NFL team market. A dramatic example: the September 28th game between the visiting Kansas City Chiefs and the home team Green Bay Packers. The Green Bay DMA rating was over 20% higher than the national rating. But that pales in comparison with the performance of the surrounding DMA markets of Wausau, Madison and La Crosse, all of which pulled ratings well over 150% the national average:
Local Cable Advertising Demand
Local cable advertising support for NFL games has been nothing short of spectacular!
Over the past two seasons (2014 & 2015), 2,000+ Viamedia clients ordered over 80,000 30-second spots across essentially our entire national footprint (i.e., 69 out of 74 markets.) That comes to an average of 40 spots per advertiser. And if we confine our analysis to those 63 Viamedia markets that exhibited local cable advertising over the past two football seasons, we find strong overall growth (+18%) driven by both an increase in average unit pricing as well as an increase in the number of 30-second spots. Source: Viamedia internal analysis of B.I.G.SM database. Copyright © 2016 by Viamedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
One investment pattern that is quite distinct is the rise in local market advertising share when that market’s football team is scheduled to air on a national cable telecast. For example, on December 10th, 2015, the NFL Network aired a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals home market of Phoenix represented 7.6% of total local cable advertising for the game, compared with that market’s total NFL advertising share of 2.7% for the entire football season:
When it comes to major sports in America, it’s not a question of which product category is #1, but rather just how dominant that category will be. And when it comes to professional football, the Automotive Category is very dominant, capturing 54% of all local cable advertising. Well over 800 local automotive dealers and manufacturers (out of 2000+ local cable clients) invested in the NFL over the past two seasons:
The 97th NFL Season
Several years ago, the NFL implemented a strict salary cap which prevented certain teams (especially in large markets) to outspend smaller market teams for the best free agent talent in the league (ala what happened in baseball when the New York Yankees outspent everyone.) The net result: a remarkable competitive balance has been struck amongst NFL teams. Today, more hometown fans than ever have a reasonable expectation that their team will make the playoffs and maybe go all the way to the Super Bowl. All of which raises fan engagement which is sure to reach a fever-pitch when the NFL kicks off its 97th Season that will run from September 8th to New Year’s Day 2017.