For much of the season, the conversation throughout the NFL has centered around off-field events. Ratings were down at times, political statements were interfering with fan enjoyment, and some claimed that the league was becoming over-saturated with games.
However, since Week 10, it appears ratings are on the upswing. This was the first week after the 2016 presidential election, which could be one reason. Another is the fact that the stakes tend to get higher around mid-November, playoff races are heating up, and match-ups are more meaningful.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN, "It's an encouraging rebound... I think it proves that the election was certainly a factor." The average margin of victory this season is 9.83 points, the lowest since it was 9.13 points in 1932. Nearly 70 percent of all 2016 games have been within one score in the fourth quarter.
Some changes we might see in the near future? The expediency of official reviews. The process currently adds an average of 15 minutes to each game.
But despite the surge in ratings of late, NFL ad revenue is down about 17% from last year. The TV industry as a whole usually gains a 5.3% increase in revenues, but in November 2016 the overall TV market was down 2.4% year over year. 30-second ads still cost around $590,060 per unit, but they aren't seeing the kind of return they once did.
As a response to these ratings foibles, the league is exploring alternative viewing options to grow the audience. This past week, the NFL and YouTube have come together to announce plans for virtual reality content. Google's new virtual reality headset Daydream will join forces with YouTube and the NFL app to present an immersive new series intended to bring fans into the action. The NBA has already gone down the VR route by broadcasting 25 games a year beginning this season, using the Samsung NextVR headset.
This summer, Pepsi created Mountain Dew ads on virtual reality to coincide with NASCAR programming—it seems like a great sport for visual immersion.
Because VR is still in its infancy, don't expect any massive strides to take place in the immediate future. Very few games will be available on this technology until the headsets start being marketed more widely, and productions start being shot with VR in mind.
Improvements in technology are a nice way to help ratings, but nothing beats high quality content. As we're seeing right now, when the league is at its best, people will keep watching.
UPDATE: On the topic of gimmicks, the NFL just announced it will start a spring league next season. Players on current rosters will not be allowed. It will be for veteran free agents only.