Four weeks into the current NFL season, television ratings are down nearly 10% overall compared to the first four weeks of last season. Sunday’s games in Week 4, according to Nielsen, had the smallest audience of any Sunday so far: an average 14.2 million viewers.
Add that ratings dip to the ongoing controversy around player protests, and you might reasonably wonder how official NFL sponsors, as well as brands that buy advertising during NFL games, feel right now about the league.
The answer: “They’re nervous,” says Brian Cristiano, CEO of ad agency Bold Worldwide. “Everyone is looking at the numbers, they’re looking at the ratings… they’re nervous. They’re like, ‘Are we overpaying? What are we going to do? Can we have makeups? How else are we going to get this exposure back?'”
NFL advertisers anxious, but far from panicking
In case you doubt that advertisers pay close attention to the week-to-week scandal and scrutiny in and around the league, Cristiano, who works with brands that advertise with the NFL, says they monitor all of this, “probably too much — to their detriment. They’re looking at the press, they’re looking at the ratings numbers, as if it really matters that much in the long run, instead of looking at next season, next year, and where the NFL is going to be in 3-5 years.”
And where is the NFL going to be in 3-5 years? Making its games available on more and more non-traditional platforms, if its deal this season to let Amazon stream 11 games is any indication.
If you’ve been listening to our Sportsbook podcast closely, Cristiano’s point about advertisers anxiously monitoring contradicts what Elizabeth Lindsey of Wasserman said on Episode 2 of the podcast: Scandals around the league rarely do much to ward off sponsors because of the NFL’s reach.
But in fact, both experts agree: The NFL isn’t going anywhere. Look no further than the reaction from the 35 companies that are official NFL sponsors this season to what has been the biggest story in sports for two weeks, and one of the biggest ongoing news stories in the country: silence, almost across the board. Only six (Under Armour, Nike, AB InBev, Ford, Hyundai, and Bose) have issued statements about President Donald Trump’s condemnation of player protests, plus one (P&G) that responded when asked by Yahoo Finance.
The rest are silent because they would prefer to avoid taking a side, and risk alienating any NFL fans, still the most valuable demographic in sports.
The future of NFL advertising
The NFL “will continue to dominate” American pro sports leagues, says Cristiano. “But the NBA is nipping at its heels. I don’t think they’re going to overtake the NFL any time soon, but the difference is the access level to the players, the personalities, in the NBA. Whereas in the NFL, it’s all behind ‘the shield,’ and that’s not what fans want.”
So, what do fans want?
Unfettered access to the athletes, not manufactured and processed by editing — real, raw, stripped back. “Instant engagement, access to the players, big personalities, they want real stuff,” Cristiano says. “And they want it in video format, for the most part.”
One example: When Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown held up his phone in the locker room and went live on Facebook after a Steelers playoff win last season. Brown was criticized by some for doing it while Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was addressing the team, and the team fined him $10,000, but fans loved it.
Facebook, with its 2 billion users, has more than 5 million advertisers on its platform now. Cristiano says many brands complain about how powerful Facebook has become, and that organic, free posts rarely work anymore — they have to spend. “The other thing [they say] is, Oh, it’s taking attention away from television, it’s taking attention away from broadcast.’ So what? The brands are complaining about it, and trying to keep things the way they are, instead of figuring it out, Okay, if it’s taking attention away, how do we jump on this?'”
The future of NFL advertising, as Cristiano imagines it, is still far away because companies have been slow to adapt. But once they wake up, expect ads to rely less on the ad window between gameplay. “What else can I do that’s off of the 30-second platform of broadcast TV, and how can I now capture some of that audience and give the fans what they’re asking for that the NFL is not doing? They don’t need to rely on that break between the action, they can create it.”