Like the NFL, Thursday Night Football looked pretty solid coming into this season. At the beginning, AdvertisingAge reports, the networks that carry NFL games secured rate hikes of 8 percent over a year ago. And why not? As pretty much every other type of TV programming has suffered declining ratings over the past few years, the NFL has remained an oasis.
Surprisingly though, ratings have slipped for all NFL broadcasts so far this season. Thursday Night Football has experienced a 14 percent slide in household ratings, while ESPN’s Monday Night Football plunged 20 percent. No one is quite sure why. While some blame Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest, another likely culprit is this year’s presidential race. We’ll find out in November if that’s the case.
But for now, it doesn’t appear people are rushing to their devices to watch NFL games. As a Forbes report explains, Twitter announced a $10 million deal in May with the NFL in which it would stream 10 regular-season NFL Thursday Night Football games free and globally. So far, Variety says, the stream has drawn about 243,000 viewers, compared to the 15.4 million who watched the game on TV. Viewers can stream the games on their TVs via Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, and Xbox One, among other Internet TV hookups.
Courting Cord Cutters
It’s too early to tell if Twitter’s experiment will pay off. Those viewership numbers may either be inflated, because of the stream’s relative novelty, or underestimated, because word hasn’t yet gotten out about the offering. In either case, it’s an effective—and timely—hedge by the NFL against cord cutters.
A 2016 study from the Convergence Consulting Group found that 20.4 percent of U.S. households are currently cable-free. The trend is especially strong among younger viewers: YouTube recently claimed it reaches more 18-49-year-olds than the top 10 primetime TV shows. A few primetime shows have lost 30-40 percent of their viewers in that age group.
Since one of the main reasons consumers keep cable is to watch live sports, this Twitter-NFL deal can be seen as an acknowledgment that cord cutting will one day become the norm. Disney, whose ESPN unit has seen its own ratings decline, paid $1 billion this August for Major League Baseball’s tech arm, BAMTech, to create a streaming service for the same reason.
Twitter’s Efforts to Change
For Twitter, meanwhile, the deal is a chance to redefine the service as a media company and possibly secure new ad revenue. As CEO Jack Dorsey said at the industry trade show DMEXCO last month (as reported by AdExchanger), “We’ve been watching people tweet about what’s on the screen in front of them for a long time, so to enable people to [view TV] within the app is where we think we can add value and innovate.”
Twitter, which has shown anemic growth of late, needs to create new reasons for people to use its service. (Twitter is also a takeover target. At the time of this writing, a number of potential suitors, including Salesforce, were looking at the social media company.) It’s not clear, however, whether viewers think tweets add much to the broadcast. Older viewers especially remain befuddled by Twitter and its use of hashtags, among other quirks particular to the service, according to Fast Company.
But for network and NFL execs, the Twitter deal will help solve the mystery of where this year’s viewers have gone. If the Twitter hookup logs better numbers, they know distribution was the issue. If not, then the problem might have something to do with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Barring that, it could simply be that one of network TV’s biggest cash cows is suffering its own version of Deflategate.