We’re just about three-quarters of the way through the NFL’s regular season as of this past Thanksgiving weekend. Even casual observers of America’s most popular sport know which teams are likely to make the playoffs, who’s playing well, and who had a disappointing season, among countless other factoids. But here’s one thing not everybody is sure about: where have all the football fans gone?

According to midseason reports, ratings are down by nearly 6%, a number that matches a seven percentage point drop in our own data. 

This drop in viewership may have a simple explanation: the most popular teams are the ones performing terribly this year. New York, New England, Dallas, and Philadelphia all have teams with rock-bottom records, most of which are not even close to making the postseason. Maybe lots of disappointed fans are simply turning the games off. 

But here at CivicScience, we thought there might be more behind the scenes, so we dug deeper. 

And it turns out, when we look at U.S. adults, a majority of respondents (54%) are at least somewhat less interested in the NFL this year, as opposed to previous years, while only another third or so (35%) are as interested.

That declining interest year over year has been a trend among U.S. adults since at least the beginning of 2018 (with notable jumps in interest between January and February of each year, which is of course, when the Super Bowl occurs):

But, despite the overall decline in interest, Sunday Night Football continues to be one of the most watched televised programs year over year, and the 2020 Super Bowl pulled in over 100 million viewers, an increase from last year (though a slight decline from 2018).

So what explains the apparent contradiction between lack of interest in the NFL and decline in ratings, and increase in viewership of major NFL games?

As with most things these days, technology might have a role to play.

Ways to Watch

When considering streaming services, Amazon Prime and Hulu+ both provide access to live NFL games as part of their subscription packages (certain subscriptions to Disney+ also allow for a Hulu subscription, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ve piled that into the Hulu+ category). 

November data shows Hulu viewership among NFL fans is slightly down, going from 51% of the population in January watching a few times a week to 42% today. Of note is the beginning of an upward weekly viewership trend moving forward from August, more or less the start of the NFL season.

Amazon Prime Instant Video, however, shows a slightly different story among the same segment of the population. Weekly usage is down slightly from 34% in January to 31% today, with a peak of 47% in July (likely a result of summer pandemic lockdown orders).

Monthly viewership, however, is on a strong upward swing, from 29% in July to 43% now. Perhaps Hulu is the preferred platform for NFL fans that stream games, or perhaps Amazon Prime Instant Video users watch games with less frequency than Hulu users. 

So what does this have to do with football fans and the ratings slide of the regular season?

To begin, streaming services aren’t a huge draw for people who watch NFL games.

A full 87% of U.S. adults prefer to watch football games at home, on their own TV. And just in case you thought concerns about the pandemic might be influencing that trend:

Even prior to the pandemic, 78% of adults still preferred the comfort of their own home to any other space. In fact, the pandemic restrictions haven’t changed trends with regard to how the NFL is enjoyed among U.S. adults.

Fifty-nine percent of U.S. adults report not changing their football viewing habits.

However, despite the overwhelming majority of preference towards watching football at home, when we cross NFL viewership habits with streaming service viewership habits, we start to see a compelling story.

Weekly Hulu watchers are most likely to watch the NFL on a streaming service. While that may sound somewhat obvious, it makes an interesting implication for the future of how NFL games are watched. As people become more comfortable cord-cutting from traditional cable packages, the more the NFL will have to get comfortable partnering with streaming services. 

Even more fascinating about this trend to switch to streaming services is that it doesn’t quite hold up when we look at Amazon Prime Instant Video:

People who watch Amazon Prime Instant Video are just about as likely to watch the NFL on a streaming service as they are on a TV, or most any other method, in fact. 

Why does there seem to be an apparent preference among Hulu watchers to view the NFL on a streaming service as opposed to Amazon Prime Instant Video watchers? The answer to that may be a complicated mix of demographics and overall user experiences with each platform, but suffice to say, streaming services that don’t provide live NFL games (such as Netflix) would benefit from providing more access on their platforms. 

So Where Are the Football Fans?

Though it’s only a small number of NFL viewers at this time making the switch to streaming services (and of those, they tend to prefer Hulu to Amazon Prime Instant Video), this trend is likely only to be on the rise as cord-cutters become more and more prevalent. 

The gradual movement of NFL fans from TV to streaming services isn’t, of course, the whole story. Nielsen’s ratings have historically struggled to effectively gauge ratings in the age of SVOD, which may help explain the mid-season ratings drop. In addition to all that, there is a presidential election dominating the news cycle, and a pandemic still applying pressure on people’s emotional and financial health. Perhaps NFL fans just don’t have the mental space to worry about whether their team is going to make the playoffs.