Without familiar faces such as Tom Jackson, Mike Ditka, Cris Carter, and Keyshawn Johnson, the 2016 edition of ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown needed to do something to catch your attention.
The new crew consisting Trent Dilfer, Matt Hasselbeck, Randy Moss, and Charles Woodson didn’t quite light a fire under audiences, even if longtime host Chris Berman was still there to provide some semblance of familiarity. Ads like this didn’t help much either.
The things that made ESPN’s pre-game show stand out for years, its big and familiar personalities, were gone. Now it just looked like every other football show out there. Given the crowded landscape of NFL Sunday pregame programming to be found on NFLN, CBS, and FOX, all of which were coming into the 2016-17 season with familiar faces and routines, you might have expected ratings for the ESPN stalwart to fade. And so they have.
Here are some recent Neilsen ratings for ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown (11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eastern) with the corresponding rating from the previous year below.
9/11/16: 1.978M viewers (1.103M adults 18-49)
9/13/15 1.956M viewers (1.161M adults 18-49)
9/18/16: 1.720M viewers (0.992M adults 18-49)
9/20/15 2.143M viewers (1.269M adults 18-49)
9/25/16: 1.623M viewers (0.926M adults 18-49)
9/27/15 1.784M viewers (1.013M adults 18-49)
10/02/16: 0.817M viewers (0.410M adults 18-49)
10/04/15 0.925M viewers (0.498M adults 18-49)
10/09/16 1.519M viewers (0.862M adults 18-49)
10/11/15 1.666M viewers (0.922M adults 18-49)
Four out of the five weeks, Countdown ratings have been down and not exactly a nominal number either.
So the question is, is this actually the fault of the show or simply just bad timing?
Look at all of the factors being bandied about right now. NFL game ratings are down across the board. The nonstop election coverage has sucked attention away from things like sports and the NFL seems to be feeling that effect strongly. ESPN literally competes with itself as Fantasy Football Now on ESPN2 is grabbing the attention of some viewers at the same time. Thursday Night games siphon off a couple fanbases each week and the NFL’s obsession with London games really seems to be killing pre-game ratings overall.
Sunday NFL Countdown might simply be caught in the crossfire. That said, FOX’s pre-game coverage showed an average decline but less-so than ESPN’s. Meanwhile, CBS has flipped between being flat and seeing an uptick while NFL Network has seen their pre-game audience go up this year.
This might be where the personalities make a difference. The NFL Network crew is solid and familiar (Rich Eisen, Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Michael Irvin and Steve Mariucci) while CBS’s The NFL Today has James Brown, Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason and other longtime contributors. These are known quantities and it’s not hard to think that audiences who used to tune in for Tom Jackson and Mike Ditka now turn to other talking heads from that generation or age range in order to recapture the sense of familiarity.
When reached for comment ESPN didn’t seem concerned about the ratings dip.
“We are very pleased with our new studio team and the changes we’ve made to the show this season. Anecdotally, we’re hearing a lot of positive reactions to our new analysts and their interactions on-set,” the network responded.
There’s actually no reason to doubt that. Given all of the above factors, the ratings drop might just be a growing pain while this new crew builds up a loyal following. Moments like Charles Woodson talking about what Colin Kaepernick’s protest means to him will go a long way towards giving the show it’s own identity.
What’s most likely happening is part of the dip is likely due to the overall dip in NFL ratings while a chunk of it can be attributed to some viewers not liking the new team and direction and opting to watch an alternative pre-game show. While ESPN is likely shedding some viewers because people miss the likes of Ditka and Jackson (and potentially next year with Berman’s status up in the air), new viewers will likely latch onto the new direction.
In the meantime, they’ll have to ride things out until the election is over, at the very least, to see where they stand when that distraction is gone.