It’s no secret that NFL ratings have been declining rapidly over the last couple years. For the 2017 regular season, ratings dropped 9.7%, according to Nielsen. And while there’s plenty of debate over what’s causing the decline (e.g. player protests, viewers ditching cable TV, overall dilution of the NFL brand), one factor the NFL has tried to address is the number of commercials that air during its games.
For years, fans complained that there were way too many commercials during games, slowing down the pace of play and damaging the overall viewing experience. In an effort to mitigate the problem and to make the TV product more fan-friendly, the league experimented with fewer ad breaks last season — cutting the number of commercial breaks from 5 per quarter to 4.
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Unfortunately, to the dismay of many fans, the total number of commercials they were exposed to during a typical game didn’t really change. While the league did break for commercial fewer times per game, the length of its ad breaks increased from an average time of 1 minute 50 seconds up to 2 minutes 20 seconds. Plus, broadcasts peppered in split-screen commercials, where half of the screen ran an ad while the other half had a camera tuned into the action.
In other words, NFL fans are still spending roughly the same amount of time watching commercials during a game as they always have (you didn’t think they’d willingly cut back on the $3.5 billion in ad revenue they get each season, did you?). And over the course of a season, that adds up to a shocking amount of time spent watching commercials on game days.
The average NFL fan will watch a full day’s worth of commercials during the 17-week regular season — that’s right, 24 hours of commercials (most of which will be the same few commercials over and over and over again).
NFL Commercials By The Numbers
Let’s break down the numbers:
The average NFL fan spends 4.2 hours (252 minutes) watching games each week, according to a study done by Sportsfacts.org. If you play fantasy football, that number balloons up to 8.7 hours each week.
The Wall Street Journal once did a study of what’s actually included in an average NFL TV broadcast. They found an average game runs 3 hours and 11 minutes (191 minutes total) and commercials take up 32.98 percent of the broadcast, which comes out to about 63 minutes.
Now, let’s do a little math:
The average NFL fan watches 252 minutes of games every week during the regular season.
Multiply 252 by 0.3298 (the percentage of commercial time in the average game), and that comes out to 83.1 minutes of commercials the average fan watches each week during their NFL viewing window.
If you multiply 83.1 minutes by 17 (the number of weeks in NFL’s regular season), you’ll see the typical NFL fan watches 1,412.86 minutes of commercials over the course of the season. That’s 23.5 hours of commercials. Rounded up, that’s 24 hours — an entire day’s worth of commercials fans will watch during the games this season.
Note: We realize some fans watch NFL RedZone on Sundays, the commercial-free channel that bounces between games all afternoon. However, by all accounts, these fans are still very much in the minority and RedZone’s isn’t yet rated by Nielsen.
Is the League Worried?
Even though NFL ratings are down, team owners and broadcast execs aren’t panicking just yet. Let’s keep this all in perspective — the NFL is still massive. A “bad” ratings week is still miles ahead of nearly anything else on TV. Sunday Night Football was the top primetime show in viewership and had the highest rating with adults 18-49 of any show for its 10th straight year. NFL games also made up 37 of the top 50 broadcasts in 2017.
But the NFL still needs to be cautious.
Let’s stay focused on the commercials. Simply put, the games are too long because of them. Commercials provide over $3 billion in revenue for the league from the networks, creating what one witty reporter called a “Cash-22” situation.
“In other words, the more the networks pay the league, the more commercials are needed and the more commercials can cut into viewership.”
But with changing viewing habits in this Netflix world, viewers’ tolerance for commercials has gone way down over the years. Live sports have remained the most immune to the streaming revolution, but the patience of fans is seemingly starting to wear thin.
“In a world where Netflix has no commercials and consumers are used to 15 seconds of pre-roll, is there a better way to do commercials with our broadcast partners?” NFL Media executive Brian Rolapp asked in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable.
In other words, the league still has a multi-billion dollar problem to solve.
So…are you ready for some commercials?