Primetime ratings for the opening weekend of the 2016 NFL season were not kind. Not only were they down across almost the entire board, Monday Night Football‘s numbers showed signs that last season’s slide might be continuing.
MNF averaged an 8.1 rating for the 2015 season while garnering an average viewership of 12.9 million, down two percent and three percent, respectively. In Week 1 of the 2016 season, the early game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins was the least watched MNF game since 2012 (7.7 rating, 13.0 million viewers), while the San Francisco 49ers – Los Angeles Rams follow-up was the least watched since 2008 (6.2 rating, 10.3 million viewers). Week 2’s showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears generated an 8.3 rating, which is off 11 percent from last year’s second-week match-up and is the lowest since “at least ’09, and likely further back.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a very good chance that Week 3’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints will fall even lower on the ratings chart, and not just because the teams have one win between them. This time, as with many other things in your life, you’ll be able to put the blame squarely on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The first presidential debate between the two candidates starts at 9 p.m. Eastern, just a half-hour after the Saints-Falcons game kicks off. Considering that there will be no ad breaks during the debate, it will be televised across multiple networks, and people have been waiting months to watch this event unfold, it’s almost impossible to imagine that MNF ratings will improve in any way.
While high viewership for the debate is good for an educated electorate, there’s one group of people sure to be unhappy about the fact that MNF is hemorrhaging audiences: Ad buyers.
Buyers told the Wall Street Journal that they expect “TV viewership in the range of about 10.3 million to 11 million people for the game,” which would fall short of the guaranteed audience of 12 million to 14 million viewers that ESPN promised them. That number includes live streaming, which ESPN is banking on to make up some of the siphoned TV viewers.
“Fortunately technology is such that viewers no longer need to choose,” said an ESPN spokeswoman in an emailed statement. “The debate or the game can be streamed, and we’ll be reminding fans of that in the coming days. We do expect we’ll see a lift in our streaming numbers.”
Fortunately or not, even a bump in live stream viewers isn’t likely to make up for what’s already a shrinking audience.
The good-ish news for ESPN is that the match-ups get better and TV markets get bigger in the coming weeks as games include the New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, and Denver Broncos. That should help stem the tide of decreasing audience sizes. There’s still a long way to go this season and NFL fans are nothing if not dependable. But maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing the effects of an oversaturated primetime football schedule coupled with an audience that’s ever-increasingly looking to alternative means to watch sports.
Whatever the case, you can bet ad buyers will be keeping an eye on the trend. And ESPN will be thinking of ways to make them happier.