NFL ratings. Everyone wants to give you a good reason why they’re down. 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. The real answer, which many people won’t want to admit, is that it’s a collection of unknowable factors.
What we do know is that NFL ratings were down 9.7 percent in 2017, with average viewership plummeting from 16.5 million to 14.9 million. That followed an eight percent drop from 2015 to 2016. That had a direct impact on ad revenue, which declined 1.2 percent last year from $2.45 billion to $2.42 billion. The only reason the NFL didn’t lose more money was that the average cost of a 30-second spot rose from $499,000 to $505,000.
On paper, things don’t look good for the upcoming NFL season in terms of bucking the trend. The way the NFL has dealt with player protests and the reaction to them has been a clusterfuck to say the least. President Trump seems to have made it one of his cornerstone complaints, which will only ramp up as we get closer to November, especially with Nike building an entire campaign around Colin Kaepernick. And then there are all of the other factors to consider that have had an impact on ratings in recent years.
However, one group that sees some positives headed into the season is, surprisingly, media buyers. At least when it comes to one segment of NFL games. According to a group of network buyers surveyed by Variety, they expect to see ratings growth for Thursday Night Football games on Fox. As TNF starts a new five-year deal between the NFL and Fox, buyers expect the consistency of the lineup to keep viewers engaged. Previously, TNF games were split between CBS and NBC and featured lower quality contests. Fox made it a priority to make sure that TNF games are higher quality and more interesting to national audiences, while the NFL relaxed rules that required TNF matchups be made of teams in the same time zone, all of which should also have an impact on ratings.
When asked to provide rating predictions, buyers said that they expected to see TNF garner a 4.6 rating from 18-49 audiences, which would be up slightly from the actual 4.5 rating TNF recieved on CBS last season. TNF grabbed a 4.0 rating when it aired on NBC.
The bad news for the NFL is that buyers don’t have the same faith in many other areas of “commercial viewing” programs, which includes Sunday Night Football and the regular Sunday NFL game broadcasts. They predict a 5.79 rating in the A18-49 demographic for SNF, which would be a sizable drop from the 6.2 it averaged last season.
However, don’t cry too much for the NFL. Buyers still predict that NFL broadcasts will continue to provide TV’s biggest audiences. NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Fox’s Thursday Night Football, Fox’s O.T Sunday post-game show, and NBC’s Football Night in America pre-game program are all expected to draw the biggest ratings this season.