What to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 2

http://sports.morganwick.com/2019/04/what-to-make-of-the-nfls-experiment-with-putting-the-draft-on-broadcast-part-2/

http://www.morganwick.com/?p=9038

Last year, after the NFL Draft aired on broadcast for the first time ever, I wrote a blog post looking at the resulting ratings and what it meant for the NFL’s desire for “presidential election”-style coverage of the draft on every major network. This year, ESPN agreed to air all three days of the draft on ABC, with the first two days being college-focused coverage from College GameDay that aired on ESPN2 last year. This was somewhat surprising to me, because last year Grey’s Anatomy significantly outpaced Fox’s coverage in the 8 PM ET hour, and ABC was hosting what amounted to side coverage alongside the existing coverage on ESPN and NFL Network. I figured the league would want to repeat last year’s experiment another year, and if ESPN did decide to put the draft on ABC they would put it on only ABC, making pre-empting Grey’s more palatable and allowing both ESPN and ESPN2 to air NBA playoff games on Friday if needed. Still, it is understandable; ESPN is desperate to maintain their relationship with the league entering contract renegotiations, including pumping up ABC as a broadcast outlet for the league, while still preserving whatever impact the draft still has on their carriage fees.

Did we learn anything more about the future of the draft on broadcast? Let’s find out. This is going to be significantly shorter than last year’s analysis, and I’m going to assume, for the most part, you already read last year’s post for context.

Day 1: The first day’s coverage of the draft was down only slightly from last year and marked the third-largest Day 1 audience on record, almost entirely due to ABC. ESPN and NFL Network were both down double-digits, with NFLN seeing its lowest audience since 2013 (and that’s with last year’s numbers not including the Fox simulcast) and ESPN drawing its lowest household ratings since 2004. ABC’s coverage nearly pulled even with ESPN, drawing identical household ratings and coming within about 320,000 viewers, although ESPN had a much bigger lead in the key 18-49 demographic. Was this because ABC’s college-centric coverage was more appealing to a broader audience, the result of ESPN’s promotion machine highlighting ABC’s coverage to a greater degree than any other network could, or simply more people being used to the draft being on broadcast compared to last year?

Last year, I noted that Fox’s ratings actually went up late in the night, with the network posting consistent 1.1s in the demo until jumping to a 1.3 at 10 PM, then crashing back down to a 1.0 at 10:30. I wondered if ratings would start higher if more people were aware of the draft being on broadcast to begin with. This year, ABC’s demo ratings bounced between 1.2 and 1.4 for the first two hours, then actually crashed to 1.1 at 10 PM and .9 at 10:30. This does seem like familiarity and promotion had as much to do with ABC’s numbers as anything else; if I wanted to be smug about it I’d suggest the decline from Fox last year in the 10 PM hour, despite the higher numbers earlier in the night, suggests the more human-interest-focused, college-centric coverage is more of a liability than anything else. (I tried to watch it from the lens of being more “Olympic-ified” coverage more along the lines of what a broadcast network would do with their own production, but it was so substance-free I never watched more than a handful of minutes. I suspect a broadcast network handling a main draft production would try to stake out some middle ground.)

ABC edged out CBS for the night’s demo crown with CBS taking the total-viewer lead; The Big Bang Theory had a substantial lead in the demo in the 8 PM half-hour, while its spinoff Young Sheldon only barely edged it out at 8:30. Last year I suggested CBS would only be willing to pre-empt BBT for the draft if they had exclusivity, without sharing it with ESPN or NFL Network, and the only thing that could have changed that is the fact of BBT ending after this season. Young Sheldon is CBS’ second-highest-rated scripted series in the demo and it’s not clear it can maintain its current numbers without BBT as a lead-in. I still don’t think the networks would find there to be enough potential audience to justify “presidential-election” style coverage split between them, but without BBT CBS would have much less of an argument against the sort of split we’ve seen the last two years.

ABC’s own numbers, when isolated to the main primetime period only, improved significantly compared to last week, although the entire draft coverage declined slightly from last week’s primetime average.

Day 2: This is where any network that’s not ABC or Fox would still need some convincing to give up their primetime for the draft, and also the ultimate condemnation of the ABC production as any sort of harbinger for the future of draft coverage. Second-day coverage set a new high across all networks (thanks mostly to ESPN’s NBA Playoff game starting later than in years past, meaning draft coverage moved to ESPN2 later accordingly), but ABC’s coverage was down a tick in the demo compared to Fox last year, and came in a shade behind NBC at third across the broadcast networks. Fox’s slate is weak enough that ABC beat it fairly consistently, but the real point of comparison for Fox might be WWE SmackDown, which will take over Fox’s Friday nights in the fall and picked up a .7 in the demo the previous Tuesday, good enough to beat even Fox’s own year-ago draft numbers. Meanwhile, CBS beat ABC in the demo in every half hour, while NBC beat ABC in three half hours compared to ABC taking the edge in one. (Even in 18-34, where last year I noted Fox’s numbers would be more appealing to other networks, ABC isn’t clearly ahead of NBC or CBS.) NBC might be willing to air the draft with more traditional coverage and with ESPN and NFLN sharing the stage expecting a lateral difference in ratings from what they already have, but I doubt it’d be worth it for CBS. Even for ABC, the network added more total viewers compared to last week’s slate but may have declined in the demo. “Presidential-election-style” coverage of the second night appears to be a nonstarter, and even the status quo of a broadcast network sharing the night with ESPN and NFLN appears wobbly.

Day 3: Like last year, ABC simulcast ESPN’s coverage of the third day, and as such my analysis doesn’t change much. Both ESPN and ABC gained total viewers compared to last year with ABC’s demo gains outweighing ESPN’s demo losses; with NFLN also gaining ground in both measures, draft coverage averaged 3.161 million viewers across all three networks with 1.251 million of them in the demo, up a decent amount from last year. Across Saturday’s slate, ABC’s coverage alone trailed both of NBC’s NHL games in both measures, and was just barely edged out by CBS’ golf coverage in total viewers, but once again the total audience outpaced every non-NBA sporting event on the weekend except Sunday’s NASCAR race from Talladega. (Last year’s Xfinity Series race from ‘Dega was on Fox instead of FS1 and would still have drawn more total and demo viewers than ABC’s audience.)

Where does the NFL go from here? In the near term, I would expect something similar to this year’s setup to remain how the draft is broadcast in the foreseeable future, with the main question being whether ABC switches to a more conventional draft presentation, and if it does, if that comes at the expense of ESPN’s coverage, especially on the second day. As before, NBC might be convinced to give up its Thursday and Friday slates for draft coverage shared with ESPN and NFLN even if it would be a lateral move on Friday, but even with BBT ending Friday is pretty much the Achilles’ heel for CBS. One thing to consider if I’m the league: if I want to keep pick-tipping from becoming a thing again, I would want to minimize the number of draft productions that need to synchronize their ad breaks and general readiness for pick announcements, even if ESPN is otherwise okay with how ABC’s college-centric coverage did.

Longer-term, there probably aren’t enough viewers to go around to make “presidential-election” style coverage worth any network’s while; the bigger question is whether the league opts to take coverage away from ESPN and NFLN and give it exclusively to one broadcast network. My impression is that, despite the rumblings a year or two ago regarding ESPN potentially giving up Monday Night Football, the reality is that ESPN is desperate enough to maintain the league’s presence on its cable network that it will want to find some way to maintain its streak of draft coverage going back to 1980. If any changes come to draft coverage next year, that could be a sign of how much further those changes could go in the next contract, but if we get a replay of this year’s setup, that will probably remain how the draft is covered well into the next decade, barring any precipitous ratings drops.

What Would a Conference-Free NFL Television Schedule Look Like?

http://sports.morganwick.com/2019/04/what-would-a-conference-free-nfl-television-schedule-look-like/

http://www.morganwick.com/?p=9032

Last month, Variety reported that the NFL was looking into the possibility of decoupling its Sunday afternoon television contracts from each conference in its next television contract beyond 2022 (no link because Variety’s site is too ad-laden and required me to reload something like three times before I could actually read the article; here’s a brief summary). I could swear I at least saw speculation to that effect during or even before last season, because I’m pretty sure I had the idea for this post back then, but I couldn’t find anything and nothing I saw passing on the Variety report tied it to anything earlier, and in any case it might have just been the sort of baseless speculation my commenters like to get into. If the Variety report is the first time this has come to light, it’s worth noting that the specific phrasing used in the report was that Fox and CBS “could get to air packages that include games from both the NFC and AFC, as opposed to the current system, which keeps the NFC on Fox and the AFC on CBS”, so it’s not even clear that it would mean more than an expansion of the current cross-flex system as opposed to the full decoupling it’s easy to interpret it as (assuming anything like this comes to fruition at all, which it might not).

If the NFL does completely sever Fox and CBS’ respective slates of games from conference affiliation, it would do away with what might seem like an archaic relic of the days before the AFL-NFL merger, but it would also pose a considerable logistical challenge. The NFL is unique among major professional sports leagues in the United States in that television production and distribution for all 256 games are handled by national networks; any game not selected to air in primetime is produced by Fox or CBS for regional distribution in one of their Sunday afternoon timeslots. If which network gets which game isn’t determined by which conference the road team is from, what does determine it?

There are a few different approaches the NFL could take if it adopts this idea, and a few different places they could look to for guidance. Something like what the Big Ten has with Fox and ESPN, where Fox gets its pick of weeks it wants to pick ahead of ESPN and ABC that it picks out all at once, probably wouldn’t fly in the NFL, certainly not if the league were to maintain the current Super Bowl rotation. CBS isn’t getting left with the dregs of the schedule left over after Fox and NBC take all the good games, with the weakest feature games in all of its doubleheader weeks. What’s more likely is that Fox and CBS agree to pay closer to equal rights fees for relatively even-handed access to the best non-primetime games.

Below is the result of my attempt to figure out what this might look like in practice based on the recently-released 2019 schedule, assuming the NFL keeps its current partners with their current packages and their current schedule structure beyond this change. I followed the following principles, which are just one idea for how it might work and at best is an oversimplification:

  • For simplicity, I took all the games slated for time slots outside Sunday afternoon – the primetime, London, and Thanksgiving games – as given, and assumed all Sunday afternoon games would stay in the week they’re in in the actual schedule. In reality, the exact schedule would be the result of a push and pull between Fox, CBS, NBC, and whatever other partners the NFL has.
  • Each network would have a choice of weeks 1-16 that it wants to get first pick of games to place in the featured slot of the doubleheader, leaving the other network with the singleheader. CBS is getting the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game this year, so Fox gets the first pick of Sunday afternoons. The choice of weeks goes in “snake” order, so Fox’s pick is followed by two CBS picks, then two Fox picks, and so on, while the choice of games within a week alternates between networks, so after Fox chooses its main national game CBS chooses its main singleheader game, then Fox chooses its main early game, then CBS picks again, and so on (this has the result that West Coast games cannot be the second or third pick). This would result in the two networks either having an equal number of games, or the doubleheader network having one more game, which is usually, but not always, the case in reality; I’m holding to that for this hypothetical schedule.
  • At least to start, no network may air more than four home games and eight games overall from a single team. Conversely, each network must air at least two home games and four games overall from a single team; in other words, if a team is maxed out on primetime appearances, at least one or two of those games must come from each network. Finally, no network may air more than half of a team’s games against its division rivals. Thursday Night Football and NFL Network games do not count towards Fox’s total for this purpose, but Thanksgiving games do count for both networks. This means that in most weeks, at least some games will be “forced” onto one network or the other, resulting in picks being forfeited from the end of the order.

Even given the caveats noted above, this schedule is not quite what I would prefer – I was partway through the process when I started paying more attention to preserving doubleheaders for two-team markets (ideally, home games in such markets would always air on the doubleheader network unless both teams in the market are playing at home on the same day at the same time, or in the case of Los Angeles, if the league and networks really, really want LA to get the feature game), and might have picked different doubleheader weeks for different networks had I been thinking that far ahead at the start. (Certainly the schedule itself is likely to be different as a result of these considerations alone.)

Generally, games are listed in the order that they were picked, except for games forced to one network or the other, which are listed at the point where they were forced. This mostly just means that the game each network features in each timeslot is listed first, since I removed any indication of which games were forced and had to do a considerable bit of shuffling of already-picked games to get everything to fit.

Week 1
CBS 1:00:
ATL @ MIN
BUF @ NYJ
BAL @ MIA
KC @ JAX</p>

Fox 1:00:
WAS @ PHI
LAR @ CAR
TEN @ CLE
SF @ TB
4:05: DET @ ARI
4:05: CIN @ SEA

CBS 4:25:
NYG @ DAL
IND @ LAC

Week 2
Fox 1:00:
DAL @ WAS
BUF @ NYG
ARI @ BAL
IND @ TEN
JAX @ HOU

CBS 1:00:
MIN @ GB
SEA @ PIT (to 4:05?)
NE @ MIA
LAC @ DET
SF @ CIN
4:05: CHI @ DEN

Fox 4:25:
NO @ LAR
KC @ OAK

Week 3
CBS 1:00:
BAL @ KC
DET @ PHI
DEN @ GB
OAK @ MIN
NYG @ TB

Fox 1:00:
NYJ @ NE
MIA @ DAL
ATL @ IND
CIN @ BUF
4:05: PIT @ SF
4:05: HOU @ LAC

CBS 4:25:
NO @ SEA
CAR @ ARI

Week 4
Fox 1:00:
CLE @ BAL
NE @ BUF
LAC @ MIA
KC @ DET

CBS 1:00:
CAR @ HOU
WAS @ NYG
OAK @ IND
TEN @ ATL
4:05: TB @ LAR
4:05: JAX @ DEN

Fox 4:25:
MIN @ CHI
SEA @ ARI

Week 5
Fox 1:00:
NE @ WAS
MIN @ NYG
JAX @ CAR
BUF @ TEN

CBS 1:00:
BAL @ PIT
NYJ @ PHI
CHI v. OAK (London)
TB @ NO
ATL @ HOU
4:05: ARI @ CIN

Fox 4:25:
GB @ DAL
DEN @ LAC

Week 6
CBS 1:00:
SEA @ CLE
CIN @ BAL
NO @ JAX

Fox 1:00:
PHI @ MIN
HOU @ KC
WAS @ MIA
4:05: ATL @ ARI
4:05: TEN @ DEN

CBS 4:25:
DAL @ NYJ
SF @ LAR

Week 7
CBS 1:00:
HOU @ IND
SF @ WAS
MIN @ DET
MIA @ BUF

Fox 1:00:
LAR @ ATL
ARI @ NYG
JAX @ CIN
OAK @ GB
4:05: BAL @ SEA

CBS 4:25:
NO @ CHI
LAC @ TEN

Week 8
Fox 1:00:
CIN v. LAR (London)
SEA @ ATL
NYJ @ JAX
DEN @ IND
OAK @ HOU

CBS 1:00:
LAC @ CHI
PHI @ BUF
NYG @ DET
TB @ TEN
ARI @ NO
4:05: CAR @ SF

Fox 4:25:
CLE @ NE

Week 9
CBS 1:00:
MIN @ KC
TEN @ CAR
NYJ @ MIA

Fox 1:00:
CHI @ PHI
IND @ PIT
WAS @ BUF
4:05: DET @ OAK
4:05: CLE @ DEN

CBS 4:25:
GB @ LAC
TB @ SEA

Week 10
Fox 1:00:
NYG @ NYJ
BAL @ CIN
MIA @ IND
KC @ TEN

CBS 1:00:
ATL @ NO
CAR @ GB
DET @ CHI
BUF @ CLE
4:05: ARI @ TB

Fox 4:25:
LAR @ PIT

Week 11
Fox 1:00:
DAL @ DET
NO @ TB
BUF @ MIA
HOU @ BAL

CBS 1:00:
ATL @ CAR
DEN @ MIN
NYJ @ WAS
JAX @ IND
4:05: ARI @ SF

Fox 4:25:
NE @ PHI
CIN @ OAK

Week 12
CBS 1:00:
PIT @ CIN
DEN @ BUF
MIA @ CLE
OAK @ NYJ
JAX @ TEN

Fox 1:00:
CAR @ NO
NYG @ CHI
DET @ WAS
TB @ ATL
4:05: GB @ SF

CBS 4:25:
DAL @ NE

Week 13
Fox 1:00:
PHI @ MIA
NYJ @ CIN
OAK @ KC
TB @ JAX

CBS 1:00:
GB @ NYG
WAS @ CAR
SF @ BAL
TEN @ IND
4:05: LAR @ ARI

Fox 4:25:
CLE @ PIT
LAC @ DEN

Week 14
CBS 1:00:
CAR @ ATL
DEN @ HOU
IND @ TB
BAL @ BUF*
LAC @ JAX

Fox 1:00:
WAS @ GB
DET @ MIN
CIN @ CLE
MIA @ NYJ
SF @ NO
4:05: PIT @ ARI

CBS 4:25:
KC @ NE
TEN @ OAK

Week 15
CBS 1:00:
PHI @ WAS
NE @ CIN
HOU @ TEN
MIA @ NYG

Fox 1:00:
CHI @ GB
DEN @ KC
SEA @ CAR
TB @ DET
BUF @ PIT
4:05: ATL @ SF
4:05: CLE @ ARI

CBS 4:25:
LAR @ DAL
JAX @ OAK

Week 16
CBS TBD (2 of below):
*DET @ DEN
*OAK @ LAC
*BUF @ NE
*LAR @ SF
*HOU @ TB

Fox 1:00:
NYG @ WAS
NO @ TEN
JAX @ ATL
CAR @ IND

CBS 1:00:
PIT @ NYJ
BAL @ CLE
CIN @ MIA

Fox 4:25:
DAL @ PHI
ARI @ SEA

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Number of Primetime Appearances Per Team for the 2019 S

http://sports.morganwick.com/2019/04/sunday-night-football-flex-scheduling-watch-number-of-primetime-appearances-per-team-for-the-2019-season/

http://www.morganwick.com/?p=9029

Here are each team’s number of appearances across the league’s three primetime packages on NBC, ESPN, and Fox/NFL Network for the season, useful for determining what games can be flexed into or out of Sunday night for my Flex Schedule Watch. Recall the appearance limits are six primetime games for three teams, five for everyone else, and four NBC appearances. In the “Flexible” column, a plus sign indicates SNF games in the Week 5-10 early flex period. Note that the Bucs, Panthers, Jaguars, and Texans may each have one more appearance than I’m crediting them for, as each have games in London airing on NFL Network, and three of the following games will move to Saturday Week 16 on NFLN, increasing their counts: HOU/TB, BUF/NE, DET/DEN, OAK/LAC, or SF/LAR.

Team PT App’s On NBC Flexible
DAL 5 3 0+2
NE 5* 3 1+1
PHI 5 3 1+1
KC 5 3 1+2
LAR 5* 3 2
CHI 5 3 2
GB 5 2 0+1
PIT 5 2 0+1
MIN 5 2 1+1
SEA 5 2 2
NO 4 2 0
LAC 4* 2 1+1
CLE 4 1 0
IND 3 1 0+1
BAL 3 1 0+1
HOU 3* 1 1
SF 3* 0 0
NYJ 3 0 0
NYG 3 0 0
ATL 2 2 0
DEN 2* 0 0
OAK 2* 0 0
WAS 2 0 0
BUF 0* 0 0
All others 1* 0 0