Originally Published: November 21, 2017 8 p.m.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban knows a thing or two about trends and investing, knowledge that made him successful in business. Now you might be able to add NFL prophet to his list of qualifications.
Three years ago Cuban predicted a decline in the NFL’s popularity, due primarily to an oversaturation of the product. NFL games were everywhere, Sunday afternoon on CBS and FOX, Sunday evening on ESPN, Monday night on NBC, and a Thursday night package shared among CBS, NBC and the NFL Network. The League also shows games from London on Sunday morning and will add Saturday night games next month. In addition, 11 of the 14 Thursday games are streamed on Amazon. And those are just the live games.
The NFL Network offers 24-hour programming for those who want to stay in touch with football before, during and after games. Add social media highlights, websites and mobile apps and it seems the NFL is everywhere.
In 2014 when Cuban predicted an NFL ‘implosion’ within 10 years – “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered” was his epiphanous line - the league was coming off its second highest viewership ratings of all time, leading some to wonder if Cuban was a heretic. But after ratings declined last year, a number of believers joined the bandwagon. The sagging ratings were attributed to several factors, chief among them the presidential campaign, poor matchups and the continuing concussion story.
When the ratings decline continued this year, with only the concussion story carrying over from the previous year’s excuses, Cuban picked up a passel of supporters. 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch said he was concerned the proliferation of televised games is asking a lot of NFL ‘customers.’ CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus attributed the sagging numbers to too much football on TV. Ironically, both Murdoch’s and McManus’ employers carry NFL programming.
The NFL’s year-over-year ratings decline is ‘only’ 5%. However, the biggest drop – 11% - is in the highly sought after 18-34-year-old demographic. That’s the demo that most concerns TV execs - and Cuban. Some of the ratings loss can be attributed to millennials abandoning the television set for streaming. But a lack of interest in the sport, due in part to safety concerns, seems to be growing.
It should be noted that the NFL isn’t the only property that has experienced a decline in ratings this year. According to Nielsen’s latest survey, NBC’s non-football prime-time audience was down 4%; CBS was down 6%; ABC was down 11%; and Fox was down 20% through the first month of the new season. Sports Business Journal reported that since the fall TV season opened, NFL viewership is 2.5 times larger than prime-time viewership.
Maybe the NFL is heading for an implosion. However, 17 of the top 20 shows since the start of football season were football games, which means in an overall downward trend in ratings, the NFL is holding its own. It may be a while before we can conclude that Mark Cuban is indeed a prophet.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.