NFL Ratings May Have Reached Their Peak, Analysts Say: Cord Cutting To Blame?

NFL ratings are indisputably enviable among most professional sports organizations and entertainment channels.

The highly profitable league has been credited with keeping many networks like CBS, NBC, and FOX, afloat for a while now, and one could also throw ESPN into the mix.

But a new report from Pacific Crest analysts Andy Hargreaves and Evan Wingren is starting to call into question the long-term viability of the National Football League.

According to the analysts, the NFL ratings appear to have “peaked” with last season’s Super Bowl, an event which will go down as the highest-rated television program ever. Furthermore, Business Insider notes, 43 of the top 50 most-watched sports programs in 2015 were NFL games.

That doesn’t sound like something that one should worry about, but Hargreaves and Wingren believe the league has hit critical mass for three core reasons: concussion worries, off-field issues, and how these factors will impact future ratings, especially in lieu of the growing move towards cord-cutting.

“NFL ratings appear to have reached a peak,” the pair wrote in a note referenced by BI this week. “Concerns about concussions and off-field issues could adversely impact viewership. [The] NFL is a tent-hole property and drives outsized revenues for many major networks.”

To add credibility to this argument, BI contributor Cork Gaines points to the hundreds of layoffs that ESPN announced in October 2015. In spite of the company having the market just about cornered on live sports — and the contract on Monday Night Football — profit margins are shrinking amid the growing price tag for broadcast rights.

It is this argument that likely holds the most weight for Hargreaves and Wingren as the concussion woes and off-field issues don’t really have the data to back them up.

In fact, many football fans may be contributing to the foreseen downfall of NFL ratings because they feel concussion woes have led to rule changes that defang the game’s physicality — an overcorrection of sorts.

The off-field issues, such as Ray Rice battering his then-girlfriend/now-wife in a highly publicized elevator attack that was caught on video and then initially receiving only a two-game suspension as a result at the start of last season, did not hurt the NFL ratings for Super Bowl XLIX at all.

But the NFL is a sport that has long powered broadcast networks’ success, and more cable customers are cutting the cord because they do not see the point in paying $100 or $200 per month 12 months per year for a season that lasts less than half of that.

Pirate streams, up-to-the-second social media updates of live game results, sports bars, and even the network’s own premium service, NFL Sunday Ticket, have served to undermine that broadcast contracts among cord cutters.

Still, this is not necessarily a case of “NFL ratings will be just fine, it’s the television stations that need worry.”

A greater enemy to any intellectual property than piracy is obscurity, and if the league continues to make it expensive or exclusive through blackouts and high price tags for NFL Sunday Ticket, the generation of fans currently powering it may be the last to do so.

Emerging sports organizations, such as the UFC, MLS, and Premier Boxing Champions, could combine with leagues that are more digitally savvy — the MLB and NHL — to erode enthusiasm for what has long been the undisputed champion of American sports.

But what do you think, readers?

Is this report on the future of NFL ratings cause for concern, or is the National Football League, for lack of a better term, “too big to fail”?

[Image via Action Sports Photography/Shutterstock]