Staging NFL games overseas has received plenty of attention for its ability to expand the league’s brand in non-North American markets. But as we wrote last year, the more important element may be what these games mean as a TV production for the United States. Crucially, they give the NFL a new broadcast window that starts earlier. Games in England are typically kicking off at 9:30 a.m. Eastern, three-and-a-half hours ahead of the wave of stateside 1 p.m. Eastern kickoffs.
The exclusivity during that window brings attention and focus to subpar matchups that would likely draw relative peanuts otherwise, while allowing for new broadcast deals (such as last year’s Bills-Jaguars stream on Yahoo). It also means that more people are consuming NFL game content and consuming it for longer periods. Given all that, the idea of going to up to eight U.K. games a year and furthering that early broadcast window would seemingly be logical for the league.
— NFL (@NFL) October 1, 2016
However, there is one area that seems clearly harmed by this: the NFL’s broadcast partners’ pregame shows. Data from Awful Announcing’s Douglas Pucci, via Nielsen, shows that the pre-game shows for both Fox and ESPN had their average audiences cut almost in half this year during Week Four when they went head-to-head with Jaguars-Colts from London. Here’s Pucci’s data for ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown (11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eastern):
9/11/16: 1.978M viewers (1.103M adults 18-49)
9/18/16: 1.720M viewers (0.992M adults 18-49)
9/25/16: 1.623M viewers (0.926M adults 18-49)
10/02/16: 0.817M viewers (0.410M adults 18-49)
And for Fox NFL Kickoff (11 a.m. to noon Eastern) and Fox NFL Sunday (noon to 1 p.m. Eastern):
9/11/16: FOX NFL KICKOFF – 0.9 rating with 1.4 million viewers, FOX NFL Sunday – 3.6 rating with 5.7 million viewers
9/18/16: FOX NFL KICKOFF – 0.9 rating with 1.4 million viewers, FOX NFL Sunday – 3.2 rating with 5.1 million viewers
9/25/16: FOX NFL KICKOFF – 0.8 rating with 1.2 million viewers, FOX NFL Sunday – 3.2 rating with 5 million viewers
10/02/16: FOX NFL KICKOFF – 0.5 rating with 693,000 viewers, FOX NFL Sunday – 2.0 rating with 3.2 million viewers
So, both of those networks had their pregame audiences hit hard by the London game, and the same thing happened to ESPN in 2015 as well, when their audience of 1.784M viewers (1.013M adults 18-49) in Week Three dropped to 0.925M viewers (0.498M adults 18-49) in Week Four up against Jets-Dolphins from London.
That may not be the NFL’s largest concern, but it’s certainly a worry for the broadcasters, especially given that the pregame shows are often a source of profit for them. It also might lower what networks would be willing to bid for a new package of these 9:30 a.m. Eastern games.
Go inside the #Jaguars victory over the Colts with Sounds of the Game.
— z-#Sacksonville (@Jaguars) October 5, 2016
Of course, NFL football is still incredibly valuable, and there would still be plenty of suitors (both network and digital) for a new package. One network might jump all over it to hurt the others’ pregame shows, too. None of this necessarily means that expanding 9:30 a.m. games isn’t good for the NFL’s bottom line on balance, or that a further expansion of that window won’t happen just because broadcasters are annoyed about losing pregame shows’ audiences.
However, it’s worth noting that this kind of window expansion is not just the NFL grabbing eyeballs that wouldn’t be normally watching football content. Yes, it’s grabbing some new viewers and some of those who watch football, but not pregame shows. Yet it’s also taking some away from those pregame shows. That’s not something that the league’s broadcast partners are necessarily thrilled about.