nfl ratings

After a season full of hand-wringing over NFL ratings, the league’s final viewership numbers are in, and… they are not pretty.

According to Nielsen data obtained by ESPN, NFL ratings fell 9.7 percent in 2017, with average viewership plummeting from 16.5 million to 14.9 million. That decrease follows an eight percent drop from 2015 to 2016.

The NFL’s ratings decline has been attributed to literally dozens of different factors. Among the most commonly cited explanations: cord-cutting, over-saturation of games, quality of play, lack of stars, anger over player protests, competition from cable news, and concerns about brain injuries. Most likely, the true cause is some unknowable combination of factors, not only one.

Clearly, everyone in proximity to the NFL is a little spooked by the dip in viewership. NFL owners have expended substantial effort attempting to get the players to stand during the national anthem to avoid alienating a segment of fans, while TV executives have reportedly attempted to talk the NFL out of Thursday Night Football. Poor ratings drew league sponsor Papa John’s into a national controversy and nearly held up the contract extension of commissioner Roger Goodell.

The notable silver lining for the NFL is that even if viewership is down, the league still reigns supreme over the rest of television. Per AdAge, 37 of the top 50 most watch broadcasts of the year were pro football, and Sunday Night Football on NBC was once again the year’s most watched primetime show — this time, by a greater margin than ever before.

But even if the NFL isn’t in danger of losing its status as America’s favorite league, it clearly faces a problem. After viewership took a dive in 2016, it was fair to wonder whether the decline was a blip, maybe brought on by the presidential election.

With ratings down for a second straight year, however, there is clearly cause for concern. Some of the factors tamping down ratings might prove aberrational, but others (cord-cutting, rise of streaming, RedZone, inherent violence) are clearly here to stay. The NFL has until its rights deals run up in the early 2020s to reverse the trend, but if it continues, TV partners could have some interesting negotiations on their hands.


About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports,, and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.

  • Al Wasser

    from ESPN story: “The NFL RedZone also might be a factor in taking fans away from watching
    the daytime games on CBS and FOX. The NFL Network and DirecTV, which
    air separate versions of the show that broadcast live look-ins, have
    never shared viewership numbers.”
    I would think this is a very significant factor … people with fantasy teams probably flock to this, rather than being stuck with whichever game the networks feed them.

  • A Sip of Sports

    I have a whole piece examining that happening over at a Sip of Sports:

  • sportsfan365

    Nothing surprising about this number, as it seems appropriate given all the issues affecting the game, i.e., bad play, bad officiating, countless commercial breaks, association with brain disorders, social justice demonstrations, and the population’s slow move away from television in general.

  • JGO

    There are any number of reasons why I watch far less football today. I watch football to escape the insanity that passes for news and politics today, now that escape is gone. Concussions and injury are not two of them. My decline started two or three years ago.
    The games are:
    Over officiated,
    Too long with too many commercials (all repetitive),
    Politically correct with colors to “raise awareness” of diseases of which I am already aware,
    The pitiful and obvious attempt to woo female viewers,
    Stupid rules to enhance the score while playing to “fantasy football”,
    The defense has been neutered,
    Endless replays reviews to get everything “right” and avoid criticism,
    Tax subsidies for billionaires’ stadiums to seat the well-heeled in luxury boxes,
    Too much “celebrity” involvement, and
    I repeat, over officiated.

    In short, the games generally just stink.

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  • StellarBlue1

    The fact that NFL remains as the most watched program on TV, clearly demonstrates the need for an “escape from reality” for millions of fans. At least, even with all the PC and other sociological arguments against football in general, it is not “fake”. Anything on TV that is not fake is a plus these days…

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