The National Football League (NFL) has been the gold standard for TV ratings for years, but the league’s appeal has been eroding over the past couple of years. This does not appear to be an auspicious time for Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) to spend $50 million to kick-off its program to stream 11 NFL games this season.
Amazon streams the games at no charge for members of its Amazon Prime service and drew 372,000 viewers who watched an average of 55 minutes for its first Thursday Night Football game. That’s a tiny fraction of the company’s estimated 60 million Prime members and a small bit of an estimated 14.6 million or so viewers of the combined TV and streaming audience.
Compared to the first Thursday Night Football broadcast, total viewership on CBS and the NFL Channel was down 13%, according to a report at Deadline.com.
It doesn’t help matters that the NFL is currently embroiled in a controversy with the U.S. president over its support for players who kneel during the national anthem.
Twitter Inc. (NYSE: TWTR) averaged about 266,000 viewers at any given point last year when it showed the Thursday night games, and those games were streamed free.
There are plenty of opinions about the causes of the decline in NFL viewership. There’s the national anthem controversy and more reports of brain damage and other long-term health problems associated with football.
Another could be that consumers have simply lost the willingness to tune in to view an event that starts at a specified time. When Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX) posts an entire multi-episode series and lets customers watch them when and how they please and gets outstanding results, maybe the old, linear TV paradigm is in serious trouble.
Sporting events and live award shows have been thought to be immune to non-linear programming, but that may not be the case. Worse for the NFL is that there’s little it can do to reverse the tide.
And the bad news will spread. Those expensive pay-TV subscription bundles have been under attack for several years, and cable and satellite companies have been slow to respond. They must do something to keep up with their customers or they will be left behind, but so far their efforts have been half-hearted and not very rewarding financially.
The NFL is too important to be ignored to both network and pay-TV providers. If this canary should even catch a cold, the whole structure could find itself with a terminal illness.