Following last season’s NFL ratings drop, talk throughout the winter, spring, and summer centered around whether or not ratings would bounce back in 2017 and if the league’s viewership had peaked. Many reasons were given for the ratings drop – national anthem protests by several players across the league, the fall’s compelling presidential election, the league’s handling of domestic violence cases, and repeated head trauma – and only one of those (the election) won’t be in play again this season.
After disappointing viewership for the season’s opening night game on Thursday, a new excuse sprouted up – Hurricane Irma. If ratings and viewership both continue to decline, the excuses will likely still keep popping up.
We informally polled our followers on Twitter to determine what they expected to happen to their NFL viewing habits this season.
What's going to happen with your NFL viewing habits this season?
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) September 7, 2017
Of the 2,105 respondents, 58% said they expected no change with their viewing habits. 28% expected to watch less NFL coverage this season, while 14% said they would watch more.
Since we don’t have baselines, the data is largely worthless – those who think they’ll be watching the same could be someone who doesn’t watch at all, or someone who watches a game in every window. Someone who thinks they’ll watch more could be going from zero games a week to one. Someone who thinks they’ll watch less could be going from one game to none, or from five to four. They’re all not created equal.
We also polled our staff, asking a two part question: what’s going to happen with *your* NFL viewing this season? Do you think it will increase, decrease, or stay the same compared to last season?
Furthermore, do you think overall national ratings will decrease once again, stay the same, or increase?
Here are our responses.
Andrew Bucholtz: I think my viewing will stay about the same; I’ll throw NFL games on in the background (especially if it’s a matchup of good teams) if there isn’t something I’m more interested in, but it’s not appointment viewing for me. The league’s missteps on concussion research, domestic violence, Kaepernick and more don’t cause me to boycott the NFL, but they do provide some negative connotation that makes me less interested in the league than I used to be; that hasn’t changed year-to-year, but I do watch less NFL these days then I did five years ago. I’m also less into fantasy football then I was then and more interested in college football, and both of those changes have me watching less NFL games; fantasy’s a big reason I used to watch, and while college football doesn’t usually go head-to-head with the NFL, watching a lot of college games Saturday makes me less interested in spending time actively watching NFL games Sunday.
I think ratings may rise a bit, as there likely won’t be as strong competition from political news shows in a non-election year. I’m not expecting a huge rise, though. I don’t think the various controversies will lead to too many actual boycotts, but like Alex said, they can influence casual fans who weren’t sold on watching games anyway. In my mind, the biggest problem for the NFL is Peak TV; there are so many shows and movies out there, through conventional television, streaming service originals and more, and most of them can be watched at any time with DVRs, on-demand or streaming programming. There’s more competition for entertainment eyeballs, and the NFL’s product isn’t always winning that competition.
Ian Casselberry: This might be partly job-related, but I’m more interested in the NFL this season than I have been over the past couple of seasons.
Sure, the little guy on my left shoulder is reminding me of how the league has handled concussions and player safety, and how off-the-field domestic violence has made both the players and the NFL increasingly difficult to root for. But the guy on my right shoulder is so persuasive when he reminds me how lackluster the past summer in sports was and here comes a new NFL season with some excitement.
Coming back to football when it hasn’t been that good to me is in my blood as a Detroit Lions fan. I just keep coming back for more. Deep down, I know the violence is terrible. The hits I used to celebrate now make me wince. But then I see a play like Kenny Golladay diving to catch a touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford and I just marvel at the athleticism the sport demonstrates.
However, I do believe national ratings will continue to suffer. Most of the headlines coming from the sport off the field continue to be negative. There is so much NFL product on the airwaves, especially during the week with sports channels discussing the same headlines repeatedly and trying to make news where there really isn’t any, that it loses some appeal. And while I think there’s something to be said for sports as an escape, current events — whether it’s politics or weather catastrophes — draw our attention like they never have before. The NFL just doesn’t feel that important in comparison.
Matt Clapp: Even with everything terrible about the league (treating domestic violence the same as a guy smoking weed, the handling of concussions, the Colin Kaepernick situation, etc), I’ll watch the NFL as much as ever this season, next season, and probably the season after that.
I’m a huge Bears fan so I’ll watch them (get pummeled) weekly. I’m a fantasy football nut so I watch to see how those players are performing. Every Sunday I watch NFL Sunday Ticket — whether it’s a specific game or the Red Zone channel — and I’ll even tune in for most of the shitty Thursday night games. I can’t help it, and maybe I’m part of the problem
As for everyone else, I do think the ratings will go back up a little bit this year with no election, but also think the league is indeed starting to lose some fans.
Joe Lucia: I actually think I’m going to end up watching *more* NFL games this year. However, that’s largely not because of my own feelings – there are plenty of other things I would like to do on Monday and Thursday nights and all day Sunday. Following a move to the west coast earlier this summer, going to the bar in the late morning to watch Premier League soccer isn’t much of an option. Thus, I’ll be going to the bar in the late morning…to watch football. Over the past three or four seasons, I only watched Ravens games and didn’t care about windows in which they didn’t play. This season, I won’t have access to most Ravens games on my cable package (I am already sick and tired of the Rams and Chargers, and I’ve been here for a month), so going to a bar is my best option to watch the games I care about.
Nationally, I think ratings will nearly be flat from last season – somewhere in the neighborhood of up to down 2% across all networks. They really haven’t done a whole lot to bring people *back* to the game after a rough 2016, and I’m curious how many more people will flat out give up on watching the league. I don’t think that number is very high, and that’ll result in minimal change to the overall ratings in 2017.
Ben Koo: My viewing is likely to take a dip this year as I’ll be moving midseason from my current home-base (which has DirecTV and the Sunday Ticket) to a new place which I believe will not have DirecTV.
Putting that aside, I think my viewing will continue to decrease. Over the last few years I’ve found myself watching less football with the NFL night games losing a lot of their luster to me. I’m a much bigger college fan and will often watch eight hours or more of college football on a Saturday on my two big TVs. I absolutely love the Sunday early game window where I’ll have the Redzone Channel on and flip around different games on my other TV monitoring various betting and fantasy rooting interests and just good games in general. I’ll usually do for the late game window which isn’t as crowded.
After a weekend of splurging on watching football, I’m usually keen on taking a nap to charge up for the workweek (you may have gleaned my relationship status with my fall weekend schedule of watching hours of football and napping) during the lone game on Sunday night where it’s harder to avoid commercial breaks and a blowout can leave you with a pretty meh three hours. Monday and Thursday Night football games, I’m usually still working on the west coast so I’ll have them on in the background and either work through them or if I have some time, may watch them but at times put them on my second tv to monitor while I catch up something on my DVR.
The basic takeaway is whether its college or the NFL, I’ve become hooked on watching two or more games at a time and have little tolerance for commercials and blowouts.
Alex Putterman: I have not watched the NFL much the last few years, due to both lack of interest and lack of cable, and I don’t see that changing much this fall. I have joked that now I can pretend my regular disinterest in the NFL is actually a righteous boycott of how the league has shut out Colin Kaepernick, and while that’s mostly in jest, my feelings about the Kaepernick saga and about player brain injuries certainly won’t make me more likely to watch football. I doubt many hardcore fans will boycott the league, but it’s possible that casual fans like me could watch a little less than they otherwise would, for one reason or another. It’s hard to give up something you love, but it’s easy to give up something you’re already lukewarm about.
I would expect ratings to be up from last year, with the election craziness now behind us, but I’m not sure the NFL will get the bump it’s dreaming of. The league is in no danger of slipping from its pedestal atop the American sports scene, but I do think it’s losing some people at the margins.
Jay Rigdon: My NFL viewing habits have steadily decreased over the past few years, but for reasons related more to the team I follow tanking (thanks, Bears) and other personal obligations (Sunday rec league basketball) than anything else. Still, there was a time in life when I would have watched every single soul-crushing Chicago loss, while making sure I played in the Wednesday night league, which means something has changed.
If I had to guess what it is, it’d be the pure violence of the sport; I just have a really hard time suspending disbelief anymore that what I’m watching isn’t the hastened debilitation of mental and physical faculties. I still watch, which probably says something about me I’d rather not explore, but it’s hard to get excited enough to build my week around Sunday afternoon availability. (And, again, the Bears likely being terrible for at least another year doesn’t help matters.)
I’ll probably watch about as much as I have the last few years, which will likely end up being a few hours each week of active viewing, with a few more hours a week of a game on in the background while I read or work.
As for the national ratings, I think they’ll probably see a bit of a bump this year without the Presidential election to compete against, even indirectly. There also won’t be a historic baseball story like the 2016 Cubs, either. There will be a small bump, maybe back to 2015-ish levels. But like everything else on television, the ratings won’t be what they used to be. There’s just too much competition.
Matt Yoder: My personal viewing will probably stay the same. I’ll religiously watch all of my favorite team’s games, but honestly, I’d much rather tune in to an average college football game versus an average NFL game. I don’t know if it’s the years of scandal fatigue in the NFL, the style of play, or what have you, but I find the college game more fun as a viewing experience. And college football is helped by a system where the average regular season game means much more than its NFL counterpart with the playoff being much tougher to get into.
As far as ratings go, I can see them rising slightly this year since it’s a non-election year. However, I don’t think the league will get close to recouping the audiences that they lost in 2016. The NFL was eventually going to reach its popularity peak at some point and we may have just found it. Let’s not kid ourselves though, any sports or entertainment entity would sacrifice anything to have the NFL’s still-massive ratings even if they aren’t what they once were.