Given the overwhelming and ever-growing popularity of the NFL during the past several decades, the drop in television ratings during the first five weeks of this season comes as relatively stunning news. After all, the NFL has become the biggest and most lucrative draw of any professional sports league, and anything other than increased popularity leads to the question about whether pro football finally has topped out and soon will experience its first meaningful decline.
The short answer: It’s still too soon to know, despite the fact that prime-time ratings have experienced a double-digit decline. And even if the league has reached its peak and sees some drop-off among viewers and fans, it still is the biggest draw. Not just among pro sports, but all entertainment options.
“Despite the decline in NFL ratings, it is still the No. 1 entertainment property in all of television,” said Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications, a sports consulting company.
Pilson, who was a longtime president of CBS Sports, added: “More people watch the NFL on any given week than any other property, any other entertainment program, or any other television programming in our culture. While the ratings are down, the proportional impact of the NFL hasn’t changed that much because all ratings are down. In fact, the NFL ratings are probably down less than most entertainment properties.”
Even so, the fact that viewership is anything but up significantly has caused the league to examine the issue and figure out why the decline is occurring.
Through the first month of the season, ratings were down 11 percent from last year, and ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcasts were down 21 percent.
Cause for concern? Yes.
An existential problem for the sport? No. At least not in the near future.
But there has been enough buzz about the ratings decline that the NFL’s top media executives, Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz, recently sent a memo to all 32 teams explaining the situation and emphasizing one significant underlying reason for the drop: a presidential election that has commanded so much attention.
The memo read: “Prime-time windows have clearly been affected the most, while declines during the Sunday afternoon window are more modest. While our [broadcast] partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings, they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue.”
The election-year drop mirrors that of previous presidential races. “In 2000, during the campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, all four NFL broadcast partners suffered year-over-year declines,” according to the league. “Fox was down four percent, CBS was down 10 percent, ABC was down seven percent and ESPN was down 11 percent.”
Another factor could be the fallout from the player protests of the national anthem, leading to a movement referred to as #boycottNFL.
Rolapp and Katz, however, said they see “no evidence that concern over player protests during the national anthem is having any material impact on our ratings.”
Not all the news is bad, though. According to an industry source, the league-wide reach of the NFL actually was up through four weeks, with 149.5 million people watching the NFL, compared to 149.1 million last year. Fox broadcasts are down by about three percent among all viewers, not nearly the plummet the prime-time games have experienced.
Several factors have contributed to the decline:
Peyton Manning’s retirement and Tom Brady’s suspension
The two marquee quarterbacks were absent the first month of the season, with Manning having retired after last season and Brady serving a four-game suspension. Not having either quarterback as a built-in draw certainly was not optimal, although Brady’s return figures to increase future ratings.
Other quarterback injuries Tony Romo is injured, Cam Newton missed last week’s game, which was on Monday night. Carson Palmer missed last week’s game, also in prime-time on Thursday night. In a quarterback-driven league, the absence of so many well-known passers has an impact.
Reaching the saturation point There are three broadcast slots on Sundays — four when a game is played in London. Then there is Monday Night Football and Thursday Night Football. Plus, college football dominates Saturdays. That’s asking an awful lot for fans to keep up with so many games. With the Thursday night package shared among NBC, CBS and the NFL Network, the lack of consistency is challenging. At some point, it’s simply too much.
A transition period for emerging star players
The established stars are instant draws for NFL viewers. Brady. Ben Roethlisberger. Eli Manning. Aaron Rodgers. Philip Rivers. Drew Brees. Joe Flacco. What do they all have in common? They’re all in their 30s. The up-and-coming stars aren’t quite big enough just yet, although it could be a matter of time before players such as Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and other promising young players replace the most recognizable names in today’s game. People like to watch stars, and there don’t seem to be quite as many in the current cycle.
Young people don’t watch as much television
The ratings hit is also a reflection of the viewing habits of millennials, who simply aren’t spending time in front of the television as older adults. That doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention to football, it’s just that the way they follow the game — with a big emphasis on digital media — doesn’t register with traditional ratings measurements. Nor does the “Red Zone” channel, which runs highlights and key portions of games and has drawn a wide audience but is not measured by ratings.
The national anthem protests
In addition to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has protested during the national anthem by first sitting down and now taking a knee, other players have either taken a knee or raised a fist, sparking controversy among many fans and leading some to boycott the NFL. While it is uncertain whether that has been a significant factor in the ratings drop, a Rasmussen Reports survey earlier this month found that almost a third of 1,000 Americans surveyed said they’re less likely to watch NFL games because of the protests. Overall, 52 percent said the protests had not impacted their decision to watch games.
A few important factors that apparently are not causing a drop in ratings: The various controversies the NFL has experienced, including the scandals dubbed “Spygate,” “Bountygate,” and “Deflategate,” as well as the spate of domestic-violence cases in 2014 and the league’s continuing concussion epidemic.
Said Pilson, “I don’t believe something like ‘Bountygate,’ where fans might say, ‘I’m mad at Roger [Goodell] for penalizing my team and my coach and I’m going to stop watching’ actually happened. Or fans being unhappy with the Brady situation. They’re still going to watch. Fan unhappiness with NFL policies or disciplinary action didn’t in any way impact ratings.”
The same applies to the concussion situation, according to Pilson. Despite the fact that fans may be concerned about the health and well-being of current and former players, it’s not enough to turn them away from the game. Even if participation rates among young football players decline, it might not be enough to lead to a serious impact on the NFL.
“The NFL is still a warrior sport,” Pilson said. “I liken it to the gladiators in ancient Rome. Just because you’re not a gladiator doesn’t mean you’re not interested in seeing the gladiators perform.”
Five weeks into the season, and the ratings drop might not end until after Election Day. Still, the NFL remains a healthy entity.
“Nobody’s going to be holding [charitable] benefits for NFL owners anytime soon,” Pilson said. “It remains the overwhelmingly dominant entertainment property, and there’s no sign anybody is going to challenge the NFL at any time in the foreseeable future.”
NBC Sunday Night Football – Through Week 5 (six games)
Year Avg. Viewers/Game
2016 21.2 million
2015 24.4 million **record season for SNF**
2014 22.4 million
2013 21.8 million
2012 22.5 million
ESPN Monday Night Football ratings (given to us in ratings points, not overall viewers)