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Media Microscope: NBC's Premier League ratings drop for the first time — does it matter?

12:30 PM EDT 6/7/17
Eden Hazard Chelsea
After three straight years of ratings growth, NBC experienced a sharp decline in 2016-17. Can it make up for the drop through other avenues?

For the first time since NBC began broadcasting the Premier League for the 2013-14 campaign, the network’s TV ratings declined this season.

Not only did the numbers fail to increase for the first time, but NBC's 2016-17 Premier League ratings were actually the lowest of all four seasons it has broadcasted the English top flight.

Viewed in sequence, the average viewership for NBC — which two years ago signed a six-year contract extension to broadcast the league through the 2021-22 season — across its family of networks looks fairly stark. 

Starting with the 2013-14 season and ending with 2016-17, NBC’s average Premier League viewership on all networks combined per match window has been as follows: 438,000, 479,000, 514,000 and 423,000.

In isolation, the sharp decline could be seen as troublesome, but the overall pattern falls in line with a trend that many sports in the United States have been experiencing of late.

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Most notably, the NFL suffered its steepest drop-off in viewers in a decade last season — a shocking figure for a league that had become seemingly bulletproof in its dominance of the airwaves.

It wasn’t just pro football, though, as leagues ranging from the MLB to NASCAR to the UFC and even the Olympics have experienced recent drops in television numbers. 

There have been myriad reasons offered up for these declines, ranging from the U.S. presidential election to a poor on-field product, but the most convincing and long-lasting explanation is the simple fact that viewers’ consumption habits are changing. 

As cord-cutting increases (according to Nielsen, the number of people in the U.S. without pay TV went up by 8.4 million between 2012 and 2016 alone), fans are turning to alternate methods of watching their favorite sports.

That trend is borne out in a more positive number from NBC’s Premier League coverage this season: Though TV viewership was down in 2016-17, the season was NBC’s most streamed ever, with increases of 24 percent and 35 percent in unique devices and live minutes, respectively, compared to 2015-16. 

If NBC and other networks can replace lost TV viewers with streaming viewers, they could survive and even thrive in the shifting landscape. 

At the end of 2016, U.S. digital ad sales surpassed traditional TV for the first time, according to eMarketer. In addition, providers are generally able to charge more for online ads, due to the streaming audience skewing younger. 

The problem is, some viewers may be tuning out completely or simply following along on social media, where real-time highlights, play-by-play and analysis are readily available to anybody with an internet connection. 

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Of course, these blanket trends don’t cover every factor for each individual case. 

For example, to partially explain its drop in TV ratings this season, NBC would point to a less-than-advantageous broadcast window selection by the Premier League's British television partners, who have the first pick of broadcasting times. 

Average viewership for the two Manchester derbies — usually some of NBC's highest-rated games of the season — was down almost 100 percent this season compared to last due to non-ideal broadcasting times (the network’s lowest-rated weekend slot, 7 a.m. ET, for one match and a Thursday afternoon slot for the other).

Additionally, the amount of competitions in the club soccer sphere on U.S. television has increased dramatically in recent seasons. Fox only just completed its second season as the U.S. rights holder for Bundesliga matches. If Christian Pulisic is starting for Dortmund or Javier Hernandez is featuring for Bayer Leverkusen at the same time as a Premier League match, how many U.S.-based viewers will be siphoned off to the Bundesliga game?

Viewing habits for all television have changed and live sports, thought to be one of the last strongholds for traditional viewing, are not immune to the shift. If ratings continue to drop, networks will have to be nimble and adjust their model, or risk getting left behind.