The National Football League and its broadcasters are eager for a ratings surprise this weekend.
So far, the young NFL season has gotten off to a choppy start. Ratings for Week 1 were 13% lower than in the same period a year earlier, a steep drop tied in no small part to Hurricane Irma. Not only are there two NFL teams in southern Florida -- Miami and Tampa Bay, whose game was postponed to Week 11 from Sept. 10 -- and a third at the tail end of Irma's path -- Atlanta -- there are also a good number of football fans in the Southeast who were understandably preoccupied.
That millions of homes in and around Houston may not have had their pay-TV service back in working order just a week after Hurricane Harvey was another adverse factor. The repercussions of the hurricanes could be felt for some weeks.
But hurricanes aside, the NFL is clearly going through a transition as it seeks to win over younger viewers less tied to pay-TV or even professional football. Recent controversies involving players and domestic abuse along with the continuing issues of head injuries has weighed on the NFL's reputation. For its part, the league is putting more of its games on digital platforms while looking for ways to cut back on long delays -- coaches challenging referees -- while lightening the advertising load.
Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) will stream 11 "Thursday Night Football" games this season, while CBS Corp.'s (CBS) All Access, its direct-to-consumer subscription service, will start to carry the network's games on Sept. 24. The entire 18-game NFL Network schedule also will be streamed through Verizon Inc.'s (VZ) NFL Mobile app.
The tinkering with games and the movement to digital comes as league executives are hoping that TV ratings for this season reach levels sufficient to make an exception out of last season's underwhelming performance, when ratings fell by a gaudy 8%.
The NFL should attract good audiences for its second week of games featuring Sunday's CBS contest between the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints. Same goes for Comcast Corp.'s (CMCSA) NBC, which is televising the Green Bay Packers visiting the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night.
Arguably, the dip in 2016 was caused in part by the distraction of a hyperbolic presidential race as well as an early season schedule packed with mediocre contests and a league comparatively devoid of marquee names and star-studded teams, though fans in New England and Dallas might beg to differ.
The ratings concern comes as subscriber declines on pay-TV accelerate and the costs of TV broadcast rights rises, the product of multiyear contracts with escalating fees. Walt Disney Co.'s (DIS) ESPN, of course, is Exhibit 1. But cord-cutting also is taking its toll on broadcast networks. Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. (FOXA) co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch acknowledged earlier this week that its sports businesses are less of a growth engine than an essential part of a network that seeks to be many things to a wide audience.
"We don't feel the sports business is one of our key profit growth engines, but we think we can maintain sort of ... steady to sort of modest growth in the sports business," Murdoch said Wednesday at Goldman Sachs' Communcacopia Conference, which featured executives from many media and telecom companies.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves was more sanguine about the outlook for NFL ratings, though he did admit that the league is looking at other more digitally inclined media partners in an effort to widen the distribution of its product as much as possible.
"The NFL is doing what every other content provider is doing; they're experimenting, like we all are," Moonves said on Thursday at the Goldman Sachs conference in New York. "They're putting shows on Amazon, they're working with Verizon. There's no question these companies are becoming players."
The NFL is hoping for the best.
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Editors' pick: Originally published Sept. 15.