Will Automakers Abandon Super Bowl Ads As NFL Ratings Drop?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
will automakers abandon super bowl ads as nfl ratings drop

Normally at this time of year, between Halloween and Thanksgiving, we start hearing about automakers’ television commercials for the upcoming Super Bowl. For decades, the National Football League’s championship game has been the marquee venue for car companies trying to make big impressions on consumers.

As Super Bowl ads became an item of interest all on their own, many automobile manufacturers have crafted entire campaigns around their commercials for the “big game”, with teaser ads leading up to the event and long form and other alternate versions released once the primary ads are broadcast on Super Sunday.

While it’s the highlight of American football, automakers from around the world pony up big bucks to display their wares before more than 100 million viewers. This year, though, with television ratings for the NFL in serious decline, it remains to be seen if the Super Bowl will continue to attract automakers’ advertising dollars, marks, pounds, lira, yen, yuan, and won.

It’s hard to turn on a sports radio station or read a sports related website without being reminded that NFL ratings are down. There are many reasons postulated for the ratings drop.

Some say league expansion and enforced parity has made the quality of play mediocre. Some say it’s due to overexposure, with games expanded from Sundays only to Monday nights, and then Thursday nights. The Thursday night games this year have been routinely bad, and the decreased quality of play has been attributed to players not getting enough time to rest and heal from injuries. Now the league also has three games a year in London, England, broadcast on Sunday mornings (U.S. time), and it has expanded its “ international series” to include a game in Mexico City this year as well.

In addition to possible saturation, there’s also competition from within the sport of football. With a playoff system now in place, there is renewed interest in college football, whose games are often high-scoring affairs compared to the currently defensively dominated NFL. It’s easier to be enthusiastic rooting for your favorite college or alma mater, accepting the pretense of amateur athletics, than to root for a bunch of free agents who’d play somewhere else for more money.

A frequent complaint is that the professional football league itself has changed the game for the worse. Commercial interruptions during the games become counterproductive, as people start tuning out because of the breaks in action. Poor officiating, video review challenges, and lots of penalties have slowed the game down. There’s something like eight minutes of action in a typical game broadcast. Then there’s are things like “the process” rule, where a catch is no longer a catch.

Concerns about injuries, particularly head injuries and concussions, have lead to rule changes eliminating some of the most violent hits. While there are more concussions in amateur soccer than in amateur football, concerns about head injuries have caused parents to reconsider their sons’ involvement in high school and college football, which is bound to have an effect on attitudes towards football in general. At the same time, eliminating violent hits and changing rules to protect quarterbacks and receivers means losing those fans who watch for neck-snapping collisions.

There’s also the factor of fantasy football leagues, which move interest from watching teams to checking the stats of individual players. It’s possible that in its desire to appeal to fantasy football fans with the NFL’s Redzone phone app — which frenetically shows every touchdown of every game — the league has harmed its main revenue-generating product: live games on television.

Speaking of revenue, ESPN, one of the principal sources of the NFL’s money, lost a record 621,000 subscribers last month — part of a general decline in cable television subscriptions as viewers choose other options driven by their personal electronic devices. ESPN’s problems are a double dose of trouble for the NFL. Every subscriber lost is one less pair of eyeballs watching NFL games on ESPN, and if the network loses enough subscribers, they won’t be able to pay the billions they owe the NFL. ESPN and the NFL are currently in the middle of an eight-year deal that pays the league $15.2 billion for the rights to broadcast games.

Since surveys show that a third or more of NFL fans are not happy with San Francision 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest the U.S. national anthem over the treatment of blacks in America, it’s impossible to dismiss that as a factor in the ratings decline. (Though it’s clearly only one of a number of causes and likely not the main driver of the drop.)

Speaking of fans’ disaffection with the behavior of NFL players, one also can’t discount the cumulative affect of issues like arrests, drug and PED suspensions and domestic violence. All those pink ribbons for breast cancer won’t bring in more female fans if the league is seen as coddling players who beat women.

It might be tempting to say the NFL ratings decline is due to a decline in interest in big sports in general. After all, NASCAR’s attendance and TV numbers have been going down for almost a decade. However, interest in basketball and baseball seems to be up. This past Sunday Night Football game was outdrawn in the ratings by the Cubs and Indians in baseball’s World Series.

Change is a constant. Changes are taking place in football, broadcasting and in the way cars and trucks are marketed. Car companies openly say this or that big auto show is of no value to them, and it hasn’t been uncommon in recent years for major manufacturers to skip the North American International Auto Show in Detroit or other top tier shows. Like signing off on million dollar displays at auto shows, the decision to advertise or not during the Super Bowl is made at a fairly high level. You can be sure that the chief marketing officers of all major car companies are paying close attention to the NFL’s television ratings.

As it happens, automakers’ advertising during the Super Bowl has been declining for the last three years. In 2014, there were 13.5 minutes of commercials for 11 car brands, costing their companies $113.4 million. In 2015, those figures dropped to nine brands, 11 minutes of commercials and $96.8 million, and the past February’s broadcast had seven brands spending $90 million on nine minutes of ads.

It won’t be surprising if we see fewer car ads during the 2017 Super Bowl than we have in recent memory.

[Image Source: Kia Motors]

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7 of 71 comments
  • Lynn Ellsworth Lynn Ellsworth on Nov 02, 2016

    Money, money, and money. Don't forget the pressure applied to silly politicians to build stadiums. Phoenix is trying to unload a recently built stadium at a tremendous loss and Las Vegas just bowed down to pressure to build a stadium for someone. If the NFL and their remaining fans want to pay for these white elephants fine, but our weak politicians want to look like they are doing something with our tax money. The NFL can go to hell. I would rather watch "This Old House".

    • See 3 previous
    • MeaMaximaCulpa MeaMaximaCulpa on Nov 10, 2016

      @Bazza 150-200k combined income puts those young couples earnings at about three times the US-median family income, it's a shame that the show doesn't cater to people with a more modest/realistic income.

  • Mikey Mikey on Nov 03, 2016

    Up here in the frozen North , the NFL has pretty strong fan base . Still a few die hard CFL fans , personally I don't sees how the league stays afloat. I follow baseball from spring training , to the World Series . When the weather turns , I may catch the 4:00 games, as long as it's broadcast on network TV . We don't see the American commercials . The Canadian networks buy the feed, and insert their own ads. If I switch to an American channel broadcasting the same game.,, the Cable providers by law, block the US feed .

    • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Nov 06, 2016

      And a funny thing about preferences: I was in a rather large bar and grill in mid-September at lunchtime in the Minneapolis area, on a cloudless, sunny, GORGEOUS late-summer day. The place was filled almost to capacity. College football games were on the flat-screens throughout the place! Most of the clientele appeared to be tatted-up Millennials. Turns out that the majority of the folks were there for a weekly gathering of high-stakes... (Wait for it...) BINGO!!! If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'!

  • Ollicat I have a Spyder. The belt will last for many years or 60,000-80,000 miles. Not really a worry.
  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )