The NFL’s downturn in ratings has been the dominant sports media storyline of the fall of 2016. And unfortunately for the league, it’s not getting any better, especially when it comes to the primetime windows. And while there are a number of factors at play in what’s ailing the NFL right now, the quality of the primetime games isn’t helping.
In spite of featuring the game’s most storied rivalry in Bears-Packers, Thursday Night Football was down 17% versus last year. The abysmal 6-6 tie between the Cardinals and Seahawks was unsurprisingly down 15% from last year, proving that not all close games are guaranteed to drive viewership. The Monday Night Football matchup between Houston and Denver was also uninspiring and down 13% from last year.
Fox Sports exec Michael Mulvihill has been tweeting out numbers throughout the season and through seven weeks now, it’s obvious that Fox and CBS coverage on Sunday afternoons are being affected much less by the NFL’s ratings challenges than in primetime. With all three primetime windows dropping this week, TNF, SNF, and MNF are all down AT LEAST 18% in viewership from this time a year ago.
Update on year to year NFL viewership through Week 7
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) October 25, 2016
You can also see how those primetime drops have increased throughout the season below.
NFL Year-Year Viewership Trend By Network Thru Week 6:
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) October 19, 2016
NFL viewership trend through Week 4:
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) October 5, 2016
Mulvihill also has some tweets that show the gain in cable news on Sundays versus NFL game windows and the election has been a popular reason for at least some of the NFL’s struggles this year. Nevertheless, that still doesn’t account for the massive decline in primetime windows, especially on Sunday night where (aside from the presidential debate that went head-to-head with SNF) there isn’t that much prime political programming.
What does it all mean? It’s discouraging because the NFL has built its popularity largely on fans loving and caring about the shield and not just their favorite team. With the regional windows performing much better than the primetime games, fans might be losing some interest in the NFL as a national attraction, but still tuning in to their local teams on Sundays.
Maybe the NFL does get some of their viewers back after the election, but even if they do, the primetime numbers are such huge drop-offs that it’ll be nearly impossible for them to break even this season versus last year’s viewership totals.
Thursday and Sunday Night Football have lost almost one out of every five fans so far this year. Monday Night Football has lost almost one out of every four fans. That’s almost unthinkable given how popular and how seemingly invincible the NFL has been as the top enterprise in sports and entertainment this millennium.