NFL preseason television ratings continue to be down, which on the surface is — as Matt pointed out earlier this month — a tad baffling. Yes, preseason football sucks, but it has always sucked. Nothing has changed. Why would viewers have suddenly wised up now, while still inexplicably tuning in for the Pro Bowl each year in late January?
Besides, preseason football at least contains some value outside of entertainment. Roster spots are being fought for, schemes are being implemented and players are adjusting or readjusting. Not all of it matters, but some of it does, especially to diehard fans who have studied their team's 90-man training camp roster.
Some of it is based on circumstances. Chargers-Bears in the second week of the preseason didn't do close to as well as Jets-Texans one year prior, but the Jets have that New York TV audience. However, that doesn't change the fact that San Diego-Chicago was the least-viewed nationally-televized preseason game since the Redskins hosted the Jaguars on NBC in 2008.
It's not surprising that the Jets also trumped Sunday's Vikings-49ers game on NBC one year later, but that doesn't change the fact that Minnesota-San Francisco was NBC's lowest-rated overnight since 2008. And the 4.2 FOX drew for Saints-Texans Sunday was the lowest for any Sunday preseason game since the network's current contract kicked off in 2006, according to Sports Media Watch.
Regardless of the matchups, there's a clear trend that indicates people are less interested in preseason football on television. And that, more than anything, has to be the driving force behind the NFL's crusade in favor of an extended regular season.
More regular-season games means fewer preseason games which means bigger numbers and — eventually — more money in the league's pockets.
But it goes beyond that. The media world continues to change at a rapid pace. We have more options in terms of consumption than we did in the past, even in not-so-distant years such as 2006 and 2008, when preseason ratings last peaked. That was before NFL Rewind and Preseason Live gave fans a chance to watch preseason games at their own leisure, skipping past the inevitable exhibition lulls. It's easier to do that for preseason games, but even regular-season football has declined slightly in the ratings of late.
The question has been asked whether or not the NFL has peaked on TV. The reality is that TV has peaked on TV. We don't watch our favorite shows the way we used to and we're beginning to change the way we watch live sports. Major League Baseball's national ratings dropped last season, too.
The NFL knows it, though. These guys aren't stupid. It's why they're giving more than half a billion dollars a year to Microsoft and Verizon — deals that have nothing to do with TV and everything to do with consuming football by way of alternative gadgets. And it's also why we're now hearing about a potential relationship with Google.
Get used to ratings dropping, but as long as pro football continues to crush its opponents in those ratings and they drop at a rate that isn't any more significant than those opponents, the league probably won't care. The reality is that when trying to measure a sport's popularity, television ratings are becoming antiquated.