It may border on treasonously un-American to say this, but the NFL might be in a bit of trouble. Last year, Fox and CBS Sunday Football programming saw a single-digit decline in viewership, and ESPN and NBC’s nighttime programing a double-digit decline—heretofore unfathomable drops for a seemingly invulnerable product. While many had hoped this was a temporary blip caused by sharing the air with an insane presidential election, the news thus far this season hasn’t been much better: the annual kickoff game saw a 13% ratings decline and opening weekend similarly flagged.
This is certainly causing headaches from the Hall of Fame in Canton all the way to the Commissioner’s office in New York, but it is also impacting sales for the bars and restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings and Papa Johns, who depend on the NFL season to drive traffic.
Indeed, according to Maxim Analyst Stephen Anderson, “Any decline in NFL viewership, if sustained, is likely to have a pronounced negative effect on traffic at [places like] Buffalo Wild Wings.”
Football Puts Restaurants and Bars Ahead of the Spread
Before we go deep on some restaurant market research, let’s start with some inescapable football truths: the refs hosed the Seahawks in that Super Bowl against the Steelers, Tom Brady is the Greatest of All Time, and football is better watched in a bar.
The merits of collective viewership should not require explanation, but just in case, one UNC college student summed it up nicely: “The atmosphere is the biggest thing. Being around other fans of the team makes it more exciting when the team does well. If, heaven forbid, the team does poorly, there’s also people right there to commiserate with.”
Bars understand the collective draw and cater to it; entire economies are built around the NFL season. They open early on Sundays during football season, have designed entire systems to determine which games go on which screens, and in most large cities you can find a bar for nearly every team (Sorry, Jags fans, you haven’t caught on enough yet). They host fantasy football drafts, make a killing on half-drunk bar food purchases, and use football Sundays to promote other events throughout the week. Quite simply, without the NFL, according to one bar manager, “I do not think we would exist. I mean, think of how many businesses the NFL affects. The amount of marketing, the amount of money that’s made just off football is crazy.”
How much money? Here’s a pretty illustrative example: last season offered one less bar-watchable football weekend than usual (week 16 fell on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). That one weekend caused Buffalo Wild Wings to lose an entire percentage point in year-over-year sales.
Turnover on Downs?
But the impenetrability of the NFL’s line is starting to weaken, and even some of the NFL’s biggest partners are feeling the pressure coming through the gaps. At the end of last season, Papa John’s COO Steve Ritchie explained his company’s same-store declines as NFL declines: “We’re seeing ratings down 8 percent for the season. We’ve made a significant investment in the NFL. An 8-percent decline in ratings played a small factor in some of our performance.”
If a rising tide lifts all boats, a sinking ship drowns all passengers, and there are several reasons the NFL is taking on water. The first is contextual: it always seems there’s some national calamity distracting from America’s game. Last season shared headlines with the 2016 election and this season’s week 1 opener coincided with two category-5 hurricanes. In fact, CNN and the Weather Channel nearly tripled their ratings during week 1 as the NFL’s declined. So, needless to say, the news cycle has not been kind to the NFL, and with the current political climate being what it is, relief may not be on the horizon.
The next has to do with television in general. As DVRs and cord cutting disrupt traditional television viewing habits and draw people out of the NFL ecosystem, ratings are down across the board, and most in the entertainment industry are faring far worse than the NFL. Media consultant Brad Adgate sees the NFL’s dip as a symptom of a broader issue facing television writ large, “The fragmentation that’s taking place right now across all of TV is significant, and the NFL is not immune from that as much as it used to be.” Adgate was quick to note, however, that the NFL remains a singular commodity, pointing out, “There’s still nothing on television like the NFL.”
Yet, the NFL has many a self-inflicted problem beyond those facing other television products. With a commissioner only barely more popular than the IRS or the stomach flu, PR disasters seemingly around every corner, and the looming specter of CTE, the NFL is at risk of losing its Teflon magic. The shield is still strong, no doubt, but some cracks are appearing.
Not the Only Game in Town
But let’s not punt just yet. Last year, after a similar ratings panic, the league came back with a post-election fury. 48.5 million people watched a first round playoff game between the Packers and the Cowboys and during the 2016 Super Bowl, Americans ate roughly 1.3 billion chicken wings and 12.5 million pizzas (hey, maybe that’s where all the wings went).
Even as viewership declines, ad prices and revenue continue to increase. Sure, less people are watching, but that’s true for everything on TV, and nothing else can match the NFL’s live viewership numbers. So, for advertisers, even though the league may have lost a step, it’s still the fastest path to viewers’ wallets.
Yet bars and restaurants face a more troubling down and distance. The reason TV viewership is down in the first place is because consumers, particularly millennials, are offered increasingly individuated experiences—the era of the watercooler show will die with Game of Thrones. This desire to consume culture as a set of unique experiences as opposed to a string of conformities has greatly expanded the leisure time entertainment available.
Within an 8-mile radius of downtown San Diego, for example, one can find indoor sky-diving, coin-operated arcades, untold gastro pubs, innumerable theme bars, a theme park, rock walls, makerspaces, trampoline parks, e-sports competitions, bottomless mimosa brunches, and a sudden surge in escape rooms, to say nothing of actual athletic pursuits like paddle board yoga (yes, it’s a thing). There have always been alternatives to the NFL (church comes to mind), but the sheer volume of alternatives available to Americans with disposable income is further crowding the field.
Half Time Adjustments
The NFL is well aware of the downward trend and doing what it can. In an attempt to shed its derisive nickname (the No-Fun League) they have eased up on touchdown celebration rules, and are also trying to front load the schedule with marquee matchups. During the first three weeks of the season for example, the league’s most bankable team, the Cowboys, will be featured in three consecutive nationally televised games. Those efforts, combined with a relatively quiet news cycle and the tantalizing possibility that the league can avoid a public relations disaster for two days consecutively, may well position the league to make a comeback (hey, far more epic comebacks have already occurred).
The league will never be able to return to its previous heights, but is doing its best to remain the least wounded combatant in a battle of television attrition. This season will go a long way in telling us how successful these efforts were, and food and drink purveyors are certainly watching.
Analyst Michael Nathanson said it best: “All eyes will be on this season’s ratings trends. Why do we care so much about the NFL? Well, that’s where the money is.”