The Gist: The number of US consumers under 35 (U35) who closely follow the NFL has taken a nosedive in the past few years, while the number of those who don’t follow it at all have seen an equally notable increase. While every other organization in the world is doing their best to attract Millennials, it seems like the NFL is doing its best to chase them away.

NFL ratings are down again, so let’s all rush to eulogize the fall of an empire.

Okay, that is probably a little melodramatic, and a tad premature. But, there’s definitely a problem and we’re not the only ones to have noticed it. The brilliant Spencer Hall of Every Day Should Be Saturday has submitted his take that NFL owners are not incentivized to actually improve the product. Analysts believe that the current ratings issues could result in an earnings cut of up to $200 million in 2017. The picture is at least a little bit grim.

And, according to our data, it’s not like there’s a whole new crop of viewers on the horizon, ready to take up the mantle of NFL football viewership. The NFL has a young person problem, plain and simple.

A new graph showing that 44% of consumers under 35 years old didn't watch the NFL last year.

When you look at that chart, what do you see? Do you see that consumers under 35 (U35) are more likely to say that they’re watching more NFL games this year compared to last year? If so, congratulations. You’re an eternal optimist, and I’d like to hire you to (eventually, many years down the line) give the eulogy at what would otherwise be my very negative funeral. Personally, as a realist, I’m more focused on that red bar that shows that these consumers are nearly 2x as likely as the 35+ crowd to say they didn’t watch the NFL last year, with no signs of being ready to dive in.

And this isn’t exactly news. Take a look at the trend line over the last few years.

Consumers under 35 who watch the NFL have declined over the past several years.

Yikes. U35 consumers who closely follow the NFL have taken a nosedive in the past few years, while those who don’t follow it all made a similar climb. While every other organization in the world is doing their best to attract Millennials, it looks like the NFL is actively chasing them away. Is this just a general lack of interest in sports among Millennials? Take a look at the graph below for the NBA—an organization that, perhaps not coincidentally, just signed its biggest TV deal in history that sent the salary cap skyrocketing:

CivicScience data show that consumers under 35 who watch basketball have increased.

While the NBA doesn’t have nearly the marketshare the NFL does now, that trend line ought to make a few folks in the NFL offices a little nervous. U35 consumers are showing a gradual, but significant upward trend in following the NBA, with 9% of U35 consumers closely following the NBA, compared to 17% for the NFL. Sure, the NFL may have 2x the consumers in that age bracket, but if the current trends hold steady for another 3 years, which league will be in the lead?

Comparing the two head-to-head is a tale of two completely different generations.

A graph that compares the ages of NFL and NBA fans.

And, due to this disparity in demographics, the NBA tends to have the types of consumers that brands are more likely to want to target: the Market Maven consumers who are ahead of the game in new product trial and brand advocacy, and the social media users who will spread the gospel of the NBA product online. It’s probably worth noting here, as well, that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has embraced spreading NBA clips on social media as a form of earned media, and the NBA is way ahead of the NFL on streaming solutions with NBA League Pass. Meanwhile, the NFL seems to still be trying to figure out just how to approach a streaming product, and posting any NFL content on YouTube or Twitter is met with a near-instant DMCA takedown notice.

NBA fans over-index by 26 points on CivicScience's social media index.


Ultimately, the NFL has some tough decisions to make, but one thing is pretty clear: without fixing its U35 problem, it’s probably not going to fix the ratings problem in the long run. And it might not be the top dog for that much longer.