As Super Bowl 52 approaches, part of the story this year is the same as everyone has grown used to over the past decade: The New England Patriots are in the game for the third time in the last four seasons. On the other hand, one major storyline isn’t what the league is accustomed to at all: NFL primetime television ratings dropped this season by nearly 10% on average.
Shawne Merriman, who played eight seasons in the NFL, all of them in the AFC against the Patriots, is a perfect person to ask about both. He says the political controversy first ignited by Colin Kaepernick’s protests and fueled by President Trump had an impact on NFL viewership, but the bigger contributor is cord-cutting and social media.
“I know there was a bunch of talk about Colin, and sponsors pulling out, and that’s all part of it,” says Merriman, who appeared on Tuesday on the Yahoo Finance live show (see video above) and on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook Podcast (listen below).
“With the Kaepernick situation, regardless of whatever side you stand on, or whatever you believe should have happened, it made people feel a certain type of way,” he says. “Either they were going to be upset and not watch the games or boycott it, or they were going to watch it but not watch it the same way they did before, or some people just didn’t care. So there was the political side. But at the end of the day, 10 years ago we couldn’t watch NFL games on Twitter or on your mobile device. There are so many different ways to watch a game now, or find out about a game, that you don’t have to sit in front of a TV.”
Indeed, the variety of platforms on which users can now stream some number of NFL games has multiplied in the past two years. Among them are: Sling TV, AT&T DirecTV Now, Sony PlayStation Vue, and this past season, Amazon Prime, which showed 10 Thursday Night Football Games. In the prior year, it was Twitter that streamed 10 games.
And ratings dip or not, Fox just paid up more than NBC and CBS were paying to secure the rights for the next five years of Thursday Night Football. But the league specified that any streaming deals it enters into wouldn’t necessarily match the length of Fox’s TV deal—in other words, look to see more new Thursday Night Football streaming partners over the next five years.
Goodell on TNF call also says digital streaming partner deal will not necessarily line up with Fox's five-year deal (in length). That leaves room for experimenting with new partners on that front.
— Austin Karp (@AustinKarp) January 31, 2018
Merriman: NFL must offer more streaming options
“I think the NFL did something really good by broadcasting games on Twitter and, this year, on Amazon,” Merriman says. “They have to stay connected to the youth. Whatever platform the youth is on, they need to go and stream on there. That way, they start watching games as a kid. When I was a kid, I watched NFL games on TV. Well, kids aren’t watching TV anymore. So I’m not surprised that viewership is down. The stadiums are still going to be packed, people are still going to watch, it’s still going to be a growing game… But to get back to what it was doing at its peak, it’s going to be tough.”
Merriman adds that the NFL’s gradual increase in streaming options matches its slow pace in other areas. He uses social media as an example. Two years ago, the NFL’s internal social media rules governing each team became a public point of controversy; teams were frustrated by the limits of how much content they could post during the “in-game window.” The NBA, in contrast, is often praised for its openness with regard to social media.
“The NBA maneuvers so much faster,” Merriman says. “They know what’s hot, what’s now, ‘We’re going to get on that, we’re going to do it.’ The NFL is like, ‘Oh okay, we see that could be good, let’s look into it,’ and then one, two, three years go by and they finally do it. I think the NFL is getting better, but they’re still a little behind in how fast they’re able to move.”
One specific example that Merriman is hardly the first to cite: encouraging players to foster their own brands on social media. (Merriman has some experience in establishing a personal brand: He famously sued Nike in 2014 over use of his “Lights Out” brand name, and in 2016 Nike settled the suit.) “The NBA promotes the players, the NFL is about the teams,” he says. “If someone asks me my favorite NBA team, I don’t have one, but I have players I like and I watch their games because of them. At some point the NFL needs to understand that. It’s time to change. Things are evolving, and you have to be able to move with the times.”
Merriman: Patriots beat you with their preparation
As for the Patriots being in the big game yet again, which has led some fans to complain that they’re sick of it, “You’ve got to give them credit at this point,” Merriman says. “Whether you like the team or not, they find a way to get back there year in, year out. They have the best quarterback, in my opinion from playing against him, who’s ever played the game, arguably the best coach who’s ever coached the game, and they find a way to win.”
Merriman has played the Patriots in the playoffs before. He says it’s where experience truly shows: “One thing I noticed playing the Patriots multiple times in the playoffs was the preparation they have, week in, week out. It’s also really, really hard when you’re playing guys like that and you’re not experienced. We played them back in 2006 when I was with the Chargers, and we probably had the better team, we had the better names. We had LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson. But none of us had played at that level before, so for us it was a different experience, and for them it was a walk in the park because they had been there.”
For this Super Bowl, he admits, “As many times as the Patriots put us out, I’m definitely not going to be rooting for them.”