NFL’s Litany of Excuses Runs Out After Ratings Fall for Second Year

TV networks are running out of excuses for the dwindling popularity of the National Football League.

They blamed the election for ratings declines last year, and hurricanes for a soft week one in September. Protests during the national anthem, and President Donald Trump’s criticism of the league, have faded from the headlines. 

Advertisers are starting to believe a different explanation: the viewers aren’t coming back. Audiences are down an average 7 percent from a year ago through the first eight weeks of the season, excluding last Monday. That’s on top of a decrease of about 8 percent last season that spurred numerous changes in the broadcasts, from shorter commercials to better matchups earlier in the year.

“There’s just not as many people watching TV the way they used to watch TV,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, a sports marketing agency. “It’s going to be an issue for advertisers when they can’t reach a large-scale audience the way they have.”

With CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox Inc. and Walt Disney Co. set to report earnings in the next few days, analysts are bound to raise questions. These companies have used the popularity of the games to extract additional fees from cable operators, promote other shows on their networks and sell lots of commercials. Pro football games drew about $3.5 billion in ad spending last year, including the postseason, according to SMI Media Inc.

Media companies have spent billions of dollars on the right to air football games, which had been immune to the erosion of viewership for other TV programming. Audiences for TV networks have diminished for years as the growing popularity of online alternatives Netflix and YouTube and the availability of most shows on-demand have reduced the appeal of dramas and comedies. Live TV, like sports, was supposed to be immune, but that theory looks highly questionable now.

Ratings for the NFL suggest the same societal trends are now affecting the league, even if the declines aren’t as dramatic. The drop in game viewership ranges from 5 percent for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” to 11 percent for the CBS Sunday package. “Monday Night Football,” on Disney’s ESPN, has attracted more fans this year than a year ago, but the numbers are still down from 2015.

Viewership of the four main broadcast networks fell 8.7 percent last year, and 12 percent among adults 18 to 49, an important demographic for advertisers.

CBS’s 11 percent slump for NFL games is the steepest of the networks. Its parent company, which reports earnings after the close Thursday, is more vulnerable than rivals to the trend because the vast majority of its earnings come from the broadcast network. The declines at CBS reinforce a complaint that has gotten louder and louder in recent weeks: The league got greedy in adding the Thursday night game on broadcast.

Reserving top games for Thursday night robbed other time periods of good match-ups. After a nosedive in ratings at “Monday Night Football” last season, the league has scheduled better games for that time period, further damaging Sunday afternoon.

“Ratings declines on both general entertainment and NFL programming could be the single biggest point of focus for investors this quarter, and we’re not sure what media companies can say about the health and tone of the ad market to assuage fears,” Steven Cahall, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a note last month.

Viewership is dropping fast among people under 54 — a key demographic for advertisers — and even faster among those 18 to 34. Audiences for games on CBS, NBC and Fox have slid at least 10 percent among that younger cohort.

Advertisers aren’t abandoning the NFL, one of the only places they can still reach more than 10 million people at once. But they are growing concerned. John Schnatter, who appears in TV spots on behalf of his Papa John’s Pizza International Inc., laid into the league on a conference call this week, blaming the ratings for his company’s slow revenue growth and calling for the league to put an end to player protests.

Networks and other advertisers identify a wide range of reasons for the NFL’s struggles. The league has overexposed itself by making highlights available on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat. Identifiable stars like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers have either retired or gotten hurt. The quality of play has deteriorated. Player protests and concussions have driven away some fans.

Some executives argue viewership of the league has still improved over the long term while dropping for every other show. Yet the amount of time people have spent watching football this season is at the lowest point since 2011, back when there were fewer televised games, according to Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ head of research.

“The cumulative effect of everything happening in the world at large is having an impact on NFL viewership,” Mulvihill said. “ The league was defying the laws of gravity.”

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    These new 3D scan fit helmets could make football safer

    Riddell's next step in football helmet technology includes personalized 3D head scans.
    Image: lili sams/Mashable

    Helmets already make the violent game of football safer, but one of the biggest equipment makers in the sport is making them even better. It’s developed a new process to create helmets that could play a role in preventing the traumatic head injuries that currently plague the game and threaten its future.

    Riddell, the company behind the helmets worn by around 60 percent of NFL players, will use a new 3D head-scanning process on each player who wears its new Precision Fit headgear. To be sure there are other innovations in helmet tech, but unlike just about every other helmet design on the market, which use inflatable pads that are adjusted manually by handheld air pumps, the inside of the Precision Fit models have a custom-fit liner system made of “energy managing materials” built according to the personalized scan data of each player’s head.

    The personalization is meant to make players more comfortable and therefore, safer than ever before according to its makers, who call it “the perfect fitting helmet.” While the custom fit will certainly help to prevent injuries that stem from poorly-adjusted headgear, and perform better than helmets mass produced for the general market, it’s important to note that there’s no current tech that can protect against every single injury. Football is filled with collisions that have been measured on the same scale as car crashes, so as long as the sport is played as it is today, head injuries will be an unfortunate, unavoidable reality.

    After four years of development and a successful limited run of beta testing at select colleges, Precision Fit will be available to NFL players for the the 2017 season.

    The Riddell team stopped by Mashable HQ so I could check out the scanning process for myself. I played the sport through high school, college, and professionally in Germany, so I’ve worn football helmets for my entire life including the Riddell Speed model the Precision Fit system is built on but I’ve never experienced anything like this.

    A standard model of the Speedflex helmet.

    Image: riddell

    When I played youth football, helmets were given out to players without much thought, with a few pumps of air and a hearty slap on the side of the head to check if it stayed in place. Later in my career, as the extent of the danger that comes with head injuries and concussions came to light, I was specially fitted for each helmet I wore but managing that fit throughout the season was largely left to me.

    The status of my helmet was always a major concern for me, but it quickly took a backseat to my focus on the field during games. I often found myself playing with a less-than-ideal fit, which might have contributed to my own experiences with concussions. Football players today need to be able to play without those issues with comfort and function which is why Riddell’s new fitting process caught my attention.

    Scanning for a perfect fit

    I was given a cowl to put on under a demo helmet, which I then strapped on tightly so the scanner could record exactly where it sat on my head.

    I got the helmet set comfortably on my head, as if I were putting it on for a game.

    Image: lili sams/mashable

    The Riddell tech walked around me in a circle to capture a 360-degree scan of my head with the helmet on, using a 3D scanner hooked up to a Surface tablet running the company’s proprietary software.

    The scanner captured images of exactly how the helmet sat on my head.

    Image: lili sams/mashable

    After recording the helmet, a second scan was taken with only the cowl to capture the exact shape of my head for the mold.

    After capturing my head in the helmet, a second scan was taken with the lining cap.

    Image: lili sams/mashable

    My Precision Fit scan experience, which took about five minutes, was only a demo. Riddell won’t be making me a helmet of my own, due to cost and time constraints; players typically get their helmets four to six weeks after the scan.

    But a scan is just the start for the players who will depend on the helmets on the field this upcoming season. First, Riddell engineers import each players’ scan data into CAD design software to recreate the exact surface and head placement for production. Using the scan data, the eight-pad custom linings are then machined (cut) from the energy-managing material, which Thad Ide, Riddell’s Senior Vice President of Research and Product Development, told me is a composite polyurethane, engineered to possess “multiple densities tuned to perform the way we want it to perform.”

    The liner feels more solid than the air pockets in helmets I wore back in the day, and it’s designed to “grow” to match the surface of its wearers head, kind of like an extra protective layer of memory foam.

    The Precision Fit helmet lining.

    Image: lili sams/mashable

    Ide didn’t share exactly how much a Precision Fit helmet will cost for each individual player because it’s a prototype, but one of Riddell’s standard Speedflex units costs $409.99, so a custom fit would presumably be even more expensive. Instead, Riddell will offer the custom helmets as an option for teams to buy in bulk, which Ide said is standard practice already across all levels of football. He doesn’t think cost will be a problem for smaller programs in the future.

    “Scaleability and affordability are important to us on this platform,” he said. “Were rolling it out for large colleges and professional teams, but as we scale it I can see this becoming an affordable option for high schools, junior highs, youth programs these are all things were working on.”

    The Precision Fit helmets are made to last for a player’s entire career, too, which could help with affordability. The headgear would be reconditioned and re-certified every year by Riddell which is standard protocol for all football helmets at every level of play already, as Ide said it would be “atypical” for even a high school program to not recondition its helmets every year so the helmets will conceivably perform just as well after a few seasons as it did new.

    Smarter innovation

    Precision Fit is just a step in Riddell’s plan to bring the football helmet in line with modern technology. Ide said the company has two distinct development paths: one focused on harnessing sensors and computing to capture impact data for future development, another for the more immediately pressing matter of a helmet maker, head protection.

    “Riddell invested more than 10 years ago in head impact monitoring and helmet-based sensor technology that can transmit impact data from the field to the sideline,” he said. “Weve collected about five million impacts, and we have enough of a database now that you can really see differences in impact profiles. We think were at the point where we can tune helmets to be optimized for playing position, skill level, because players see different types of impact profiles depending on those factors.”

    Ide said integrated sensor tech and position-specific helmets will be expected in helmets in as little as five years, and individual “impact profiles” tracking their on-field collisions will give players, coaches, and medical staffs better insight into each individual’s playing style and how best to protect their heads.

    The company has a plan to bring its sensors and head protection together by 2022.

    Image: riddell

    Riddell is far from the only company working to improve football helmet design its biggest rival, Schutt (which claims 37 percent of the NFL market), released two new models last year, the Vengeance Z10 and the Vengeance Pro, which tout new lightweight builds with high safety ratings. The two companies are currently locked in a legal battle over patent infringement but a new player is primed to enter the scene.

    Starting this year, NFL and college players will be allowed to wear headgear made by Vicis, a Seattle-based startup whose Zero1 helmet is designed to yield to contact and “deform” at the point of impact, unlike Schutt and Riddell’s designs, which have rigid outer shells and pads to cushion the head after each collision. The Zero1 was the highest-performing helmet in an NFL-sponsored safety test, so it will likely be adopted by players looking for increased protection.

    In this field, competition and new innovations should be more than welcome by the helmet makers and everyone else involved in the effort to make the game safer. For now, though, increased levels of protection is all these helmet makers can offer players and teams.

    Concussions, which most typically occur in football when a high level impact causes the brain to strike the skull and begins to swell, can’t just be prevented by a better fitting helmet. They’re an unavoidable reality for the sport as it’s currently played, and no helmet can promise a truly concussion-free football experience so bringing new safety technologies onto the field will be integral to football’s future.

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