THERE'S MORE AND MORE SCORING EVERY YEAR, BUT VIEWERS ARE NOTICING IT LESS AND LESS. THIS IS THE NFL'S SURVIVAL DILEMMA. THIS IS ...
STAFFORD ... COMPLETE TO Boldin. To the end zooone—touchdown! Anquan Boldin! Carl Winfrey, a 27-year-old photographer from Richmond, Va., grabs his phone in search of a fantasy update. As Boldin celebrates, Winfrey works the trading block. Great protection for Matt Ryan.... Looking down the field.... To the end zone.... And it ... is ... a ... touchdown!!! Taylor Gabriel! On his bye week, Giants tackle Marshall Newhouse pulls down again on his Twitter feed, hungry for updates from his favorite parody accounts. Play action. They flip it to DeMarco Murray. Murray leaps! Touchdown! Count Tom Brady among the legion of RedZone Channel faithful—"Pretty amazing," he said—so he'll let the whip-around show's host, Scott Hanson, yank his attention elsewhere at lightspeed. Millions of fans go willingly along with him. Meanwhile traditional NFL TV ratings drop as time-spent-watching-per-viewer decreases. The league has lost viewers across every major age demographic, from 4% to 18%, according to a TiVo study of more than two million homes.
So here we are in the Age of Inattention—are you still with us? Football has gone from dominating a day of the week, and a couple of evenings too, to competing for fans every second. And now that our average attention span is shorter than a goldfish's (according to a study from Microsoft), the NFL is at risk of becoming a fish out of water in the digital era. After all, how can a three-hour game with 11 total minutes of action compete with a Facebook feed that is individually tailored for maximum continuous engagement? Who would choose a broadcast stuffed with 70 commercials when Netflix offers none?
The league and its partners have spent years trying to answer those questions. In 2014, DirecTV polled college students before launching a digital Sunday Ticket product aimed at younger viewers. And EA Sports, makers of Madden, commissioned ethnographic studies of young adult gamers; out of that research came a quick-play mobile game and a shareable GIF generator. The NFL has done market research too, taking the pulse of fans at town hall events and tracking engagement across a number of platforms.
But to get a snapshot of the modern fan you don't need elaborate studies or reams of data. From the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters, all it takes is a short trip on the L train and a brief walk down Brooklyn's Grand Street to the sports bar that bears Shawn Mulholland's last name. As the 38-year-old Brooklynite talks about how much things have changed, two Eagles fans casually take in the Philadelphia-Washington game playing over his shoulder. Both are wearing headphones. Mulholland does a quick scan of the room and is dismayed at the number of heads buried in glowing rectangles. He pulls out his own device and queues up a clip on his personal Instagram story. "Look," he says as a video plays of his bar on a recent college football Saturday. "On her phone, on her phone, on their phones." Then he pulls up a YouTube clip from the not-so-distant past, filmed at Mulholland's during the 2008 NCAA tournament final. As Kansas's Mario Chalmers pulls up for a game-tying three, the camera pans the crowd. "See that guy, jumping on the bar?" Mulholland says. "He ended up crowd surfing all the way to the front of the bar and out the door." The video ends. "That s--- just doesn't happen as much."
FOOTBALL IS TV. NOT JUST IN the sense that a typical game is 6% action surrounded by time spent discussing plot lines, but also in this: The NFL accounted for 46 of the top 50 most-watched broadcasts last fall. In 2014, 70% of TV owners watched some NFL football on their sets at some point. Over any 12-month period, Fox viewers consume more minutes of NFL football than the rest of the network's entire nonsports prime-time lineup. Understanding the upcoming challenges for football and network TV requires recognizing how pivotal the parties have been to each other over the last 60 years. It was the AFL, not the NFL, that first wholly embraced TV. In 1960 the AFL signed a five-year, $8.5 million deal with ABC. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle followed one year later with a CBS contract worth nearly $5 million annually. Since the leagues merged in 1970, football and TV have grown in tandem. Starting in '77, Inside the NFL bolstered a nascent HBO; NFL GameDay gave a young ESPN stature through the '80s; a full slate of NFC games helped Fox sit at the big-boy table in '93; DirecTV launched a year later with NFL Sunday Ticket and has ridden that exclusivity since.
The NFL has long faced the challenge of maintaining audience attention. The 1958 title game put pro football on the map, but as the Colts and the Giants battled in overtime, President Dwight Eisenhower, vacationing in Pennsylvania, divided his focus between the action on TV and a fierce bridge game in front of him. Still, nothing since has slowed the NFL's ascent as the league has continued with its traditional model: sell rights to outlets with massive audiences, even into the digital era. Twitter paid $10 million to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games this season, and both sides say the experiment has been a boon. In fact, fans have clamored for more similarly simple digital access to live games. But as much as the NFL might like to satisfy that demand, an amalgam of aging partnership agreements has instead left the league with a dizzying array of restrictions.
Local games, which are still offered on CBS and Fox, can now be streamed on those networks' apps—except on mobile. Every Thursday night game is available on the NFL Mobile app on Verizon customers' phones. Others can watch elsewhere, assuming they have the right combination of equipment, cable provider and patience. Out-of-market games can be streamed via DirecTV's online Sundayticket.TV product, but only if customers "live in select apartment buildings, attend one of 10 select universities, or live in select areas." And on it goes.
"The NFL is soaring on having an offer people want, but the risk is in the delivery," says Jason Dorsey, who works at the Center for Generational Kinetics advising companies on how to connect with millennials. "This is Blockbuster versus Netflix—the idea of forcing me to go somewhere to engage with something, that's not natural anymore." Even for those who do navigate the NFL's maze of offerings, what awaits is, at best, a presentation optimized for a 50-inch screen rather than for a display one-tenth that size. And at worst? A deluge of buffering, freezing and crashing, combined with serious battery drainage. Such is the world of live streaming in 2016, which makes following the action solely through fantasy apps or social networks even more compelling. It sure beats watching the game itself.
Many fans, in fact, get more enjoyment from the social aspects of football fandom—trash-talking with friends, sharing sideline memes—than actually watching the source anyway, says Justin Cox, the director of strategy at a company called Heat, which has helped EA and other corporations appeal to millennials. "That is a [challenge] for every movie company, every musician—anyone who creates content." As Ken Early, a columnist for The Irish Times, put it in a story about similar ratings declines in the English Premier League, "We have to confront the possibility that people like everything about football except watching it."
The NFL seemed to be attempting to draw fans back to their TVs—and preserve their monetized content—in October when it banned teams from tweeting video highlights on game day (unless the clips originated from the @NFL account). Outrage came fast, even from the Browns' and Eagles' official accounts, which mockingly tweeted out GIFs of figurines acting out plays.
In Oakland, social media manager Tyler Moorehead still hears from hundreds of fans each week who want more live updates. Meanwhile, sports nuts in New Orleans (where @PelicansNBA and @Saints are both run by Alex Restrepo) are witnesses to how differently the NBA and the NFL treat social media: the NBA as a marketing tool, the NFL as a distribution platform. At an NFL meeting in October, a representative of one lower-performing team complained that fans of his team would see fewer highlights compared to the fans of a top team. Maybe your team should make more plays, came the response.
No matter how much the NFL seeks to control content, it will continue battling for primacy with more and more digital alternatives. "You have a seemingly infinite number of choices now, so the tolerance for watching something that's not all that exciting has fallen dramatically," says BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield. "If there's a great game, you'll watch—otherwise it's really easy to turn on Netflix or start an episode on Amazon. The NFL has got to figure out how to get more exciting matchups that maintain excitement for the entire three hours or plan that this is the new reality."
MEDIA AND TECHNOLOGY INSIDERS gathered in early November at the Javits Center in New York City to receive wisdom about how to handle "the new reality" from an executive for one of the largest entities in American entertainment. And though Brian Rolapp, the EVP of Media for the NFL, appeared calm, sitting one-leg-over-the-other on an ivory couch, in a black suit and pink tie, he did little to assuage the audience's concerns. He said that his organization's success could evaporate if it didn't keep up with audience demands. He admitted that he's not sure TV ratings will bounce back this season. Asked what keeps him up at night, he said, "How much time do you have?" And he offered these words of wisdom: "Only the paranoid survive."
But Rolapp never wavered from his confident tone. "We are not overly worried," he said, even as he explained that the league was looking into changing core elements of its game and presentation, including, as he put it, "sacred cows." He said, "Could [games] be shorter? Can we do replays differently? Is there a better way to do commercials?" (In essence, these were rhetorical questions and he was saying, Yes, hang tight.) Since Rolapp took his post in 2014, members of the NFL's media, marketing and digital teams have grown used to hearing the Harvard Business School grad ask fundamental questions, eliminating preconceived notions, considering every idea on its merits.
Before Rolapp took charge, the NFL was at risk of missing out on social media platforms. "Take how we approached going to Twitter," says Cowboys executive VP Jerry Jones Jr. "Two years behind the NBA. We should have been first." By the end of Rolapp's first year, the NFL had partnered with Facebook. Weeks later it teamed with YouTube. ("Finally," wrote The Wall Street Journal.) The following year saw the launch of a split-revenue Snapchat deal and an agreement with Twitter.
Jones calls Rolapp "a great leader for our league." (Rolapp's predecessor, Steve Bornstein, goes further, saying, "He's what I want my sons to be and my daughters to marry.") Last January one NFL exec told FORTUNE, "Prior to Brian, they had ex-TV guys who had no idea what the Internet was. When Brian came in, the commissioner became more comfortable doing things on the digital side because he knew he had a guy [who understood the landscape]."
Commissioner Roger Goodell and his fellow NFL decision-makers may also feel emboldened to experiment because they have confidence in football's fundamental appeal. Even as the league transitions toward a digital future, more than half of all Americans will still sit down to watch a game on TV this season. NFL Game Pass remains more popular than the equivalent offerings of any other league, even though those other leagues, unlike the NFL, offer live streaming domestically.
The NFL has been exploring various scenarios for years—What if there were no rights restrictions? What if mobile bandwidth wasn't an issue? Every off-season, Goodell and Rolapp travel to Silicon Valley and meet with leaders at Google, Airbnb and the like, to keep on top of what's next. But a next large step likely won't come until 2022, when many rights deals are set to expire. The NFL could then partner with Amazon or Netflix and revolutionize the game-day viewing experience. Maybe we'll then see a personalized RedZone broadcast tailored to viewers' DFS teams. Maybe some broadcaster will start a separate feed for mobile, with tighter shots and graphics designed for small screens. Maybe, suggests Tal Shachar, a media investor at the Chernin Group, NFL broadcast feeds will become customized so that Barstool Sports can host one feed with its own style of banter, while Katie Nolan could offer a contrasting alternative on Fox Sports. And so on.
In the meantime, they fill bars like Mulholland's or sit in their living rooms, with screens in hand that are showing anything but live games. For some, the apps are game-day supplements. Others, however, are tuning out. For an overserved and underattentive generation, Snapchat beckons. Netflix awaits.
Touchdown! Now what?
"FORCING ME TO GO SOMEWHERE TO ENGAGE WITH SOMETHING," SAYS ONE EXPERT ON MILLENNIALS, "THAT'S NOT NATURAL ANYMORE."
THE BEST OF BOOKS
• Lasting Impactby Kostya Kennedy
A former SI writer and editor, Kennedy was embedded with the New Rochelle (N.Y.) High football team for a year to tell the story of its quest for a state championship. Kennedy delves into such issues as head injuries and youth fitness, and wrestles with the pressing question, Should kids—or anyone—play football?
• The Armby Jeff Passan
The author has one goal: to keep his five-year-old from ruining his arm—as so many youngsters have before him—without crushing his dream of becoming a major league pitcher. Passan's quest takes him from rural Florida to Japan, and the journey is so compelling and entertaining you almost forget the story doesn't have a very happy ending.
• The Only Rule Is It Has to Workby Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller
What happens when a pair of statheads take over a minor league baseball team? The result is a funny and honest chronicle of a summer with the Sonoma Stompers, an independent league team. Lindbergh and Miller experimented with everything from happiness surveys to five-man infields. Not all of their ideas worked, but the book does.
• Playing Through the Whistleby S.L. Price
A down-on-its-luck former steel town beaten down by drugs and gangs, Aliquippa, Pa., is also home to a high school football program that breeds football greats. Price, an SI senior writer, examines the town's rise and fall, in a portrait that takes on greater meaning in the wake of Donald Trump's successful appeal to disaffected voters from the Rust Belt. With hope of a comfortable middle-class existence fading, football has become a path to the American Dream.