It’s been one of the burning questions of the NFL season. No, not whether Tom Brady will win the MVP award after just playing 12 games, but why are the NFL’s ratings down compared to last season across the board? Primetime has taken the biggest hit with Thursday, Sunday and Monday Night Football off between 18-24% among the three packages. Sunday afternoon games on CBS and Fox have not suffered as much, but they’re down 6% between the two.
There are many theories as to why the ratings are down, the Presidential election, bad matchups in the primetime windows, oversaturation of games (games on Thursday nights, games on Sunday morning, just too many games), people being turned off from domestic violence and concussions, poor officiating grinding games to a halt, blowouts, and one that seems to gaining traction among some writers, the national anthem protests.
Even the World Series Game 5 on Sunday between the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs outdistanced Sunday Night Football featuring the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys in viewership, 23.6 million to 18.0 million. It was the first time since 2011 that the World Series beat SNF.
So what is it? It’s most likely that it’s a perfect storm of most of the above, with the exception of the national anthem protests.
Anthony Crupi of Advertising Age contributes it to poor games and bad officiating:
Applying Occam’s razor and picking the simplest explanation for the NFL’s ratings slide—i.e., the games aren’t worth watching, and the refs are only making it worse—admittedly leaves out a host of other quantifiable contributing factors. There’s the 80% traffic declines at DraftKings and FanDuel sites, for example, suggesting that the daily fantasy football craze is on the wane. And then there’s the surreal election cycle, seeing cable news networks take share from the NFL windows.
Crupi poo-poohs the idea that the anthem protests are having an effect:
Citing a single landline poll by the right-leaning Rasmussen Reports, news outlets this month have been falling all over themselves to assign blame to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick national anthem protests. Yet the key findings aren’t supported by the Nielsen data.
Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post says the NFL’s emphasis on its brand and protecting the shield at all costs have rendered the on-field product into a generic and unexciting game:
The NFL’s overemphasis on “brand” and “shield” has meant increasingly petty attention to discipline and uniformity, which is sucking away dynamism and rendering it joyless. The league is picking apart its own product with stoppages, until it’s hard for the viewer to separate the major from the minor offense: According to NFLpenalties.com, officials have thrown 1,996 yellow flags, every one of which means a halt.
And the NFL has blamed heightened interest in the Presidential election for the lower ratings, but that only seems to go so far.
Whatever the reason, the NFL’s TV partners still have to air the product and hope that after November 8 as the league can start to flex games into more attractive windows, that the numbers will go up. But if the viewership doesn’t go up, there will be some cause for concern among advertisers who aren’t taking a “sky is falling” approach to date.
The NFL is taking in billions of dollars from their TV partners and hope their fees will rise in the next TV contract in the next decade, but if the numbers continue to decrease, the networks will less than enthusiastic to pony up. So are there fixes in the short term to prevent further hemorrhaging? That’s the answer that League officials will have to address in the coming weeks and months.