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Automakers are by far the biggest-spending advertisers on National Football League broadcasts. So are they worried about the league's dip in TV ratings this season?
The NFL long has been a ratings juggernaut that seemed impervious to the public's evolving TV-viewing habits, including the growth of streaming TV and a rising number of cord-cutters who shun costly cable subscriptions. And analysts are quick to point out that the NFL is still a perennial ratings leader.
Still, automakers such as Hyundai Motor Co. -- which has a prestigious league sponsorship deal -- and Nissan are watching closely as America's favorite TV sport shows rare signs of vulnerability.
Through the first month of the season, Nielsen found that the 31 nationally aired prime-time NFL games it measured were viewed in an average of 9.7 percent of households, down from last season's average of 11 percent. In an analysis of Nielsen data from the first five weeks of the season, Pivotal Research Group found that NFL viewing time per person was down 15 percent.
Hyundai landed the prized NFL sponsorship in 2015 and has been happy with the arrangement thus far. The automaker's push to reach mass audiences comes at a pivotal time as it attempts to increase awareness and build momentum for the upscale Genesis brand, the official luxury brand of the NFL.
Hyundai, which is in the second season of its four-year deal, says the presidential election is the likely culprit behind the lower ratings. Nielsen data show a pattern of viewership declines during election seasons.
In 2012, for example, the average viewership for nationally aired games during the season's first month was 16.6 million people, down from 18.4 million in 2011. This year, viewership fell to 16.6 million from 18.7 million in 2015.
"Like with any advertising program or partnership, we closely track the analytics in real time and are aware of some softening in the NFL ratings at the start of this season," Hyundai Motor America Chief Marketing Officer Dean Evans said in a statement to Automotive News before the election.
"We agree with the NFL that unprecedented interest in the presidential election cycle is drawing some attention away from the prime-time games," he added. "NFL games continue to draw massive audiences in the demographics that are most important to Hyundai, and we are extremely pleased with the value we've received during our first two seasons as an official sponsor of the league."
Jack Hollis, group vice president of marketing at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said the short-term ratings decline is no cause for concern and, if anything, Toyota is looking at increasing its NFL ad spend.
"I don't see it as a problem at all," he said. "It will only be a problem if you see it decreasing over multiple years, then we'll revisit that strategy, but I don't see that being the case."
Nissan is a big NFL advertiser, but it hedged its bets with a broad sponsorship deal in college athletics that spans 100 universities and 22 sports, including football, women's soccer and lacrosse. Nissan began the program in 2015.
"I have had my team continually monitor and do analysis on NFL this year versus NFL in the past," Jeremy Tucker, marketing chief for Nissan North America, told Automotive News. "Am I concerned? No. Am I disappointed? Yes. I think this is something we're going to have to watch as consumer preference and viewing habits change."
Nissan’s Diehard Fan App allows fans to virtually put on their game faces, representing nearly all of the 100 universities Nissan sponsors.
Tucker said the NFL remains the ideal property for the truck segment, making it a critical platform for the redesigned Titan pickup. Tucker noted that the Titan's Web traffic doubled after ads ran during Monday and Sunday night games in October. (Nissan also holds naming rights to the stadium in Nashville that houses the NFL's Tennessee Titans.)
The auto industry is a dominant presence during NFL broadcasts. Last season, automakers alone spent a combined $895.5 million, more than any other category, and leading the next-biggest sector, quick-service restaurants, by more than $600 million.
The airtime doesn't come cheap. Advertising Age, a sibling publication of Automotive News, reported that marketers are paying more than $700,000 for a 30-second spot on "Sunday Night Football," the most valuable advertising unit in prime time for a sixth year running.
Tucker said Nissan's NFL ad spending is down slightly this season as it devotes more resources to its college initiative. He's curious to see how ratings will look postelection as NFL games grow in importance ahead of the playoffs.
He believes Americans will need some time to get back to normal after the election and will be looking for a distraction.
"Will it be football? Will it be movies? Will it be family? Will it be other cultural moments?" Tucker said.
"This is a part of the marketing that is hard but also very fun."
The key is to have marketing balance, Tucker said, citing the college deal.
"I think the world is going to continue to fragment," Tucker said. "I think that ratings as we know them are going to continue to move around. That doesn't mean we're not going to invest in NFL. It just means we have to take a more holistic approach to how we view media and where we place our dollars."