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NFL Popularity in the UK – Part Two : Television Coverage & Ratings

Part 2 in a series looking at the popularity of the NFL in the UK. The previous feature focused on the first boom of interest in the 1980’s and can be found here. This article looked at how the television coverage recovered in the 21st century and how popular the new period of growth has been through viewership.

Out of the Darkness

It’s very early in the morning on January 31st, 2000 (Greenwich Mean Time). Time is expiring in the Super Bowl as the Titans, down by 7, need to get in the endzone with 6 seconds left in regulation. Steve McNair, hero of the 4th quarter, takes the snap from under centre, drops back to pass, scans his options and finds Kevin Dyson on a quick slant at the five yard line. He catches it in stride as the Rams desperately converge towards him, the closest linebacker Mike Jones dives, stretching out both arms managing to drag Dyson down a yard short of the goal-line despite the wide receiver’s best attempts to break the plane. The clock hits 00:00. Game over. One of the most dramatic finishes in Super Bowl history had just occurred ‘…and the Rams have won the Super Bowl!’ ABC commentator Al Michaels now famously exclaimed.

Only in Britain we didn’t hear Al Michaels make that call. Instead we were treated to Brit analyst and announcer Nick Halling’s commentary of the game due to some <insert sarcasm> ‘inspired’ decision between Sky Sports and NFL International. We had no alternative either. U.K. terrestrial television had by now dropped live Super Bowl coverage and indeed any type of American football programming. From 12 (twelve) million people tuning in in 1986, 14 years later less than a couple of a hundred thousand were bestowed the latest desperation attempt to capture (or ‘appeal to’) new or casual fans. The withering numbers of dedicated fans who wanted American authenticity with their Super Bowl could go swivel. It was Halling or it was nothing. (For the record I quite liked Nick as an analyst, despite his detractors, but I always wanted Americans calling NFL games).

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Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood said recently on Max Whittle’s inaugural podcast that ratings for live games on Sky Sports around the turn of the century got to as low as 6000 viewers. In researching this piece I did come across some evidence that a dormant fan-base still existed, such as 120,000 people tuning in for one of the Championship games in January 1999. But for the large part the weekly games broadcast to a small audience on satellite television was all that remained for coverage of one of the biggest sports in 1980’s Britain. Cool Britannia and ‘football coming home’ amongst many other reasons for the dwindling interest had led to Channel 4 dropping coverage altogether and for a couple of years terrestrial NFL programming was non-existence.

When Channel 5 began showing nighttime (or very early morning) American sports in 2000 the first seeds of a revival were sewn. For shift workers and university students alike Sunday and Monday Night Football became something of a cult. The burgeoning grassroots university scene can be traced back to this moment as access to regular weekly live (and ‘as live’) full games on free to air TV was a perk even the first boom of the 1980’s didn’t provide. I say ‘full games’ but of course the famous Monday Night Miracle between the Dolphins and the Jets also became infamous for fans in the UK in that first season of Channel 5 coverage. Because as the game overran and reached an unlikely 37-37 overtime period, Channel 5 switched at 6am to the scheduled News programme leaving thousands of tired fans none the wiser as to who won the game. 30-odd years later it was the British version of The Heidi Game.

The Channel 5 coverage also gave rise to what would become the face of British NFL TV coverage, Mike Carlson. Freed from the serious corporate presentation of Sky his analysis alongside the games that could be provided on those shows is probably the best we’ve seen before or since as he joined with multiple presenters from Mark Webster through to his best partner Nat Coombs (a top 3 UK NFL presenter list might be Coombs, Nicky Horne and Gary Imlach in some order).

As the decade progressed so to, gradually, did interest in the game. In an effort to gain greater visibility for the sport ITV were awarded the post-season highlights and Super Bowl coverage from Channel 5 in 2004 and showed it for the next three years attracting around half a million viewers for the Super Bowl by their last year of the deal. And then it was announced that the UK was to host it’s first ever regular season game at the newly rebuilt Wembley Stadium. The concerted push for a return to a bigger fanbase would begin in earnest only this time it would be driven by the league office itself.

Growth during the International Series years

Television is important to the NFL. Mark Waller said recently that if they double the value of their current TV rights deals in the UK they’d start making profit on hosting the London games which at the moment result in a loss. Since the start of the International Series in 2007 media rights have doubled in value.

“If we continue on the path we are on, there will be no discussion about when the games break even,” Waller told Bloomberg recently, “If we were to double our media rights again, we would more than break even.”

With that in mind let’s first look at how Super Bowls have performed on television, both terrestrial and Sky, in the years since the first Wembley game was played (2008-2016). Despite the regular season games now played in this country and broadcast on terrestrial, it’s still the Super Bowl that seems to resonate with the casual sports fan most and it is easily the most watched American football game on UK television each year despite it’s unsociable hours here.

There are of course many ways to measure data for this but we’ll take the most common measurement used in the television industry when talking about ratings of Strictly Come Dancing v X Factor for example, or numbers tuning into the Great British Bake Off Final; average viewing audience over any minute or five minute period of an entire programme. Sometimes peak audience is mentioned (the most number of viewers at any one time), as is ‘reach’ or cumulative audience numbers usually more useful for marketing or spin purposes. But for apples to apples comparison we’ll stick with average.The figures on the following graphs are measured and distributed by the British Audience Research Board (www.barb.co.uk) and overnight.tv. screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-13-58-07

So immediately we can see a fairly sharp rise as might be expected from the concerted effort to expose the sport off of the back of the early Wembley games year to year from 2008 to 2011 (Super Bowls from the seasons 2007 to 2010). And if we take that Super Bowl 32 in 2000 (St Louis Rams v Tennessee Titans) as the starting point, by 2012 the U.K. was seeing a rise of 6 times as many people tuning into the big game. But what is perhaps surprising is the fall off in viewership post 2012 and are there any reasons for this?
The first thing to note is that in the peak years of 2010-12 the game was broadcast on BBC1. A unique quirk or rule in the landscape of British television is that whatever you put on BBC1, it’ll almost certainly get higher ratings than if it was shown on any other channel. So part of that rise might be attributed to that. The first Super Bowl on BBC1 in 2010 also coincided with the first highlights show in over a decade in that 2009 season on Channel 5 Saturday mornings. Could that have contributed to some growth of the fan base? Did the annual visibility of the sport during the International Series week (only one game a season at this point) pull in a raft of new and returning fans to the sport?

Interestingly, as we’ll discuss later, around this time Sky Sports also witnessed a jump in viewership from which growth since then has been fairly flat.Which leads to the next question. Why the drop off from 2012 to 2013? The Super Bowl was moved back to BBC2 in 2013, accommodating Match of the Day 2 which had become a permanent BBC1 fixture. Is that the main reason? Very possibly. Could the rise of U.K. Super Bowl parties also be attributed to the fall as well? Possibly, although unlikely to account fully for the fall from the peak of 1.3 million for Super Bowl 45 to just over 800,000 last year. The fact that the following years across Channel 4 and BBC2 again have tended to, when combined with Sky Sports, hover around the 800,000 to 900,000 mark also suggest a return to the mean and that perhaps the BBC1 years are the anomaly. NFLUK have even alluded to the flatlining of Super Bowl viewing or ‘consumption’ having concocted a figure of ‘4 million people consuming some Super Bowl programming’ in 2011 and reusing that figure every year in some manner for marketing purposes.

But even accounting for the fall, the NFL has still returned a 300% increase for the average Super Bowl audience over the last 15 years through better TV deals and heightened awareness of the sport. And what also can’t be measured by this is how many casual fans have been turned into knowledgable, passionate or even ‘hardcore’ ones. For that the viewing numbers on Sky Sports might offer a better view on how those numbers have grown over the last ten years.

Let’s look first at the early Championship Game every year, the alternating AFC and NFC game that kicks off in prime time Sunday evening in the UK in mid January. The valuable thing about this game, beyond it’s importance as the joint second most important of the NFL season, is that it removes any considerations around whether people are watching Red Zone or other games on Gamepass (yes there are ways around the blackouts of course!…). Primarily you’re either watching this game or you’re not watching any NFL.

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The Championship following the first Wembley game got a boost in viewing, possibly owing to the big storyline at the time of the Patriots trying to go undefeated through the season as they faced off against the Chargers. Following that the ratings settled back a bit for a couple of years.
From 2010 to 2012 viewing of the AFC Championship game dramatically doubled. Since then it’s hit something of a glass ceiling staying pretty consistent with no effect if a game was a great one or a blowout (the best may have been the 2015 game between the Packers and Seahawks). It’s this plateauing which may have contributed to the NFL’s desire to get consistent live coverage of the London games on terrestrial television in 2013.

The trends in viewer numbers is also reflected in the regular season weekly numbers on Sky Sports. Before 2007 the average regular season game at 6pm or 9pm was getting around 30-35,000. By 2010 it had more than doubled with an average Sunday game pulling in 75,000 or more.

However, like the Championship games there has been very little growth for the last five years, in fact live regular season games on Sky Sports seemed to suffer a slight dip last season and this. The most surprising was perhaps the shootout last year between the Panthers and Saints which only attracted 27,000 to Sky Sports 2.

Now, there are two obvious reasons to point to for potential causes of the plateauing or dip. One is Red Zone, which has of course taken away some fans from live games. Introduced as an option in 2011 to the regular Sky coverage it was even tested in week 15 of that season instead of the main game with a U.K. studio and adverts and was nothing short of a disaster. Yet again the scramble to appeal to new fans got in the way of providing long term ones with the coverage they deserved.

By Sky Sports Mix offering Red Zone this season instead of just via the red button, in a further effort to expose the game to new audiences, we’ve been able to see the split in viewership between that and the live game coverage. A typical Sunday evening so far this season has seen the early game get around 60,000, the later game 30,000 and Red Zone average around 25,000 for the entire 6 hours which is impressive. In total they provide interesting numbers, for example it looks like there’d be occasions when as many people are watching Red Zone as those one full featured game, but again no real hint at any continued growth in interest.

The second reason for the flatlining in viewership may be that as more people become sophisticated NFL fans they’re more likely to turn to Gamepass. Certainly a younger demographic, which the NFL has for its UK fan base, would be more likely to graduate to this type of product. Last year the NFL reported that its international customer base had increased 20% for Gamepass, although there were no further details it can be assumed some of that would be coming from the UK. As a recent article by Ben Halls of Vice Sports UK suggested, as many as 25% of people he surveyed also use illegal streaming as a way to watch games.

And of course as seen with many sports, growing an audience at scale on Sky can be a tough ask as cricket or rugby might attest. Subscription sports rarely grows an audience but feeds an already well established one. Having said that over the last ten years darts has experienced huge growth and may be the ‘sport’ that provides the exception to the rule.

The NFL decided in 2013 that in order to kickstart further growth they needed better visibility on terrestrial television that wasn’t solely confined to the middle of the night. They had tried with reasonable success showing the second Wembley game on BBC2 in 2008 and Saturday morning highlights show on Channel 5 with Trevor Nelson and Natalie Pinkham was also trialled for a year. In 2013 both International Series games would be broadcast on Channel 4 as part of their new two year deal with the league, and all three the following year (there would also be a weekly highlights show). Below is how every terrestrial International Series game has performed when it’s been broadcast on terrestrial.

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It’s worth noting that the Chargers v Saints may have done particularly well in 2008 because it was on BBC2 AND it was a 5pm which may have increased viewership. It also had the best two quarterback matchup we’ve seen, even 8 years later. From there we don’t really see any growth once the games started to be shown permanently on free-to-air from 2013 onwards although keep in mind that from 2015 onwards all the games were afternoon kick offs which may have affected the ratings negatively slightly.

You could make a fair argument that the numbers from the two games shown on BBC2 this year show a growth over the two from last year (361,000 & 430,000 against 290,000 & 381,000 shows are rise of over 15%) but would less that half a million tuning into the 16th London game really be something to impress the league owners? It’s worth baring in mind that last year’s games also competed against the Rugby World Cup and the second game was also shown on Sky and Yahoo. Just for some added context to viewership numbers, the Sunday after the second game shown on BBC2 last year (Bills v Jags) Gymnastics averaged 900,000 viewers in the same time slot on BBC2. Another odd quirk in the numbers is that the third game last year between the Lions and Chiefs actually recorded a lower audience on TV watching (across BBC Red Button and Sky Sports) than the attendance at Wembley!

Again, we’ve seen a significant increase in interest in the NFL over the last ten years and a sophistication of the fanbase, many of whom were perhaps just casual observers before or needed introducing the sport. But without question the television numbers do not show the ever climbing, continued growth often peddled by those with most to gain from increased interest in the game. We see a marked up take from the start of the century, particularly accelerating around the first four or five years of the International Series. From there television ratings have generally flattened off.

Highlight Shows and the Future

This year’s double offering of highlight shows on the BBC showcases the strategy the NFL has taken to appeal to new fans. Some great lobbying has taken place with the BBC to get one of the programmes scheduled for after Match of the Day on BBC1. Indeed the highlights shows have been getting the highest ratio of under 35 year olds across both channels which will please league suits, although on channels with an average viewer age of 60 and 61 respectively it maybe isn’t that much of a surprise.

With both shows also being archived on Gamepass it suggests the NFL might actually be funding part or all of the budget to make these. The output therefore is very much in NFL infomercial mode but there’s no denying the entertainment value of the programmes. Enjoy Osi while you can because an NFL network will be snapping him up soon, charismatic and played in New York, he’s what Fox always hoped Michael Strahan would be.

Whilst nakedly going after the football fan demographic with the scheduling of this show and the recruitment of Mark Chapman, these highlights shows are also a great way to introduce the younger generation to the sport who find the three hour slog of a game too long and Red Zone too manic. Channel 4 made a good effort with their highlight programmes but the platform the BBC can offer to promote these shows and the game is unrivalled. Whether the new shows this year will convert a raft of new fans will be revealed when the playoffs and Super Bowl ratings for this season come in, if that is indeed the end goal. Perhaps gaining a larger fanbase mainly interested in only watching these highlights shows is enough for now, it is after all the way the game was grown here in the 1980’s.

With the terrestrial rights and Sunday Night Football coverage again up for renewal next year (the current Sky Sports deal runs through 2019) it’ll be interesting to see the direction the league takes. Do they stick with the BBC who probably can’t offer them more than pennies for the rights (both realistically and politically – a sport or league more interested in making more dollars for it’s 31 billionaire owners than improving grassroots participation especially after the success of the Olympics would be a tough sell to license payers) or do they twist like in 2013 and try to squeeze some money out of an alternative free to air partner?

No-one offers the access to general sports fans and visibility through promotion that BBC Sport can in Britain across all their media platforms. If the game is still to grow the fanbase further over money raised through TV rights then expect the NFL to stay on the BBC for the next few years.

Despite all this, TV viewer numbers aren’t the be all and end all of course. With the chase for ‘fan engagement’ and other modern ways of interacting with potential customers and enthusiasts, spreading the message of the NFL beyond television is more important now than ever.

In Part 3 of NFL Popularity in the UK we’ll take a look at the other ways to measure the fanbase and interest in the game.

Photo Copyrights: nofilmschool.com ; nflfaninengland.wordpress.com

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  1. Monkeyface

    Thanks for this article. Really interesting reading

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