CHICAGO – On average, NFL TV ratings are down about 10 percent through the first quarter of the 2017 season, and it has definitely caught the attention of the league office, 32 team owners, in addition to NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and DirecTV — who have committed approximately $50 billion to the NFL for rights to broadcast games through the early 2020’s and major advertisers who spend over $4 billion a year to advertise in those broadcasts.
The ratings decline is a fact, but it is one that also requires some perspective, and when conclusions are going to be reached some facts to back them up are always nice.
For starters, NFL football is still the most watched programming on television. Super Bowl LI was the second-most watched TV show in history, and Sunday Night Football is still the No. 1 rated TV show in prime time.
The bad news is this year’s early season 10 percent decline comes on the heels of an annual eight percent decline in 2016 compared to 2015, and it does appear the NFL is in a downward trend on television.
Will ratings rebound yet this season? That remains to be seen but there is some cause for optimism depending on where you assess the blame for ratings declines, starting with the 26 percent increase in viewership of the Patriots-Bucs Thursday night game as compared to the 2016 Thursday night broadcast.
This much we know for sure. Some of the lost 2016 viewership was directly related to the wild presidential election season, and some of this year’s losses are directly related to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — not only from their pull on our attention but the loss of power, homes and TV’s suffered by hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them will come back on line and tune in again to NFL games.
Of course it is impossible to have this conversation without highlighting the political circus currently enveloping our day-to-day lives and trying to determine what if any impact that has on our watching the NFL and whether or not NFL players’ protests and Donald Trump’s subsequent attack on those players and the league have had on the decreased viewership.
There is little or no evidence to support Trump’s claim that ratings are down because of the protests, or because people are more interested in what’s going on with him.
I am not saying Trump is wrong, and in fact I’m sure there are some of you out there tuning out the league for the reasons he suggests. But there is no statistically reliable evidence I can find anywhere to support his claim, and the great majority of TV executives and industry experts have expressed real doubts his claims have actually had much impact on the declines in viewership.
It is believed to be far more likely folks are turning off their TVs due to the rampant parity across the NFL, a slew of noncompetitive games through the first four weeks of the season, the NFL’s failure to properly address issues of domestic violence and other player personal conduct code issues and because of concerns over traumatic brain issues and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, i.e. CTE.
There is one thing we also know for sure. The biggest issue of all — which has nothing to do with the NFL — is the wealth of new alternate means of delivery and cord cutters. The over-the-air cable and satellite delivery TV business is actually suffering similar or even larger declines across the board to what the NFL is experiencing, and many of its best programs are actually losing audience in much larger numbers and at a much greater pace than the NFL is experiencing.
The bottom line is, while declining viewership could eventually be a huge problem for the NFL, the cause of the problem appears to be far more about TV as we know it than it is about the NFL.