With NFL ratings sputtering and most of America convinced that player protests are to blame, the official TV executive counter-narrative is upon us.
A week after several prominent execs told Sports Business Journal that over-saturation of football, and specifically the growth of Thursday Night Football, was to blame, the Wall Street Journal has published its own collection of quotes to the same effect. The most interesting testimony comes from CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, whose network has rights to Thursday Night Football in addition to its AFC package on Sunday.
“I do think it’s clear that adding 10 games to the Thursday night package and two additional Sunday morning London games has clearly diluted the Sunday afternoon packages and affected the ratings. It’s just simple mathematics,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus.
This quote is surprising in light of McManus’ previous comments. Back in February 2016, after CBS reached a deal with the NFL to televise a handful of Thursday-night games, McManus told Awful Announcing that he was confident interest in the NFL would prevent any dilution in the ratings.
“Whenever the NFL adds programming, the appetite seems to be there from fans, and the ratings keep getting better,” he said. “We had our highest-rated AFC championship game in 29 years. So there doesn’t seem to be a lessening of interest on the part of fans and viewers. I think Thursday night is going to continue, we’re going to continue to improve the ratings, and it’s going to continue to be a really valuable franchise and a real viewing destination for viewers, for fans.”
In less than two years, McManus has gone from, “the appetite seems to be there” to, “It’s simple mathematics.” Either he was just toeing the company line last year, or he’s doing the same this year. Regardless, there seems to be real momentum building among TV executives to limit how many days a week viewers can find NFL football on air, as he joins executives from both NBC and Fox in pushing this narrative.
It may seem hypocritical for McManus to blame Thursday Night Football for the NFL’s ratings while actually airing Thursday Night Football, but it’s easy to see the reasoning. TNF is going to exist (and thus, allegedly dilute CBS’ ratings on Sundays) no matter whether CBS is involved, so the network might as well claim a piece of that pie. McManus can simultaneously think TNF should be limited and that as long as it’s around it should be on his network.
We can’t say for sure whether the cause for the NFL’s stagnant ratings is protests, over-saturation or one of the other 30-something reasons various observers have suggested. Hell, in the same Wall Street Journal story in which McManus blamed dilution, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus suggested ratings were suffering from the NFL putting highlights online and thus, “enabling fans to keep up and follow the game without watching the telecast.” But it’s clear that the barrage of TV executives, owners, fans, reporters and analysts speculating about ratings has only just begun, and the excuses aren’t going to stop coming.