NFL ratings are down this season. For those who have been itching for the league to get served some humble pie, this may be viewed as a delightful development. But it’s important to remember that even sagging numbers for the NFL still virtually blow everything else on television out of the water.
Eight of the nine prime-time games this year have attracted fewer viewers than over the same period in 2015. (Oddly enough, last week’s Thursday night blowout between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans bucked the trend.) Through the first two weeks of the season, Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football ratings were both down 12 percent. The most recent Monday night contest involving the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, which was pitted up against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s first presidential debate, was the lowest-rated ever.
There are a couple of potential reasons for this phenomenon, but at this stage, they all appear to be either temporary or fluky. The sample size is too small to say the NFL Empire is in danger of falling.
First of all, ratings are still really strong
It’s important to be remember that the NFL is viewed on a different level than other professional sports leagues and entertainment options. Much was made of the fact that the ratings for the season opener were down from the previous two years. But NBC still won the night handily with 25.2 million viewers.
The NBA experienced a ratings surge last season with Game 7 of the Finals topping 30 million viewers, which was its biggest audience in 18 years. But the average game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors attracted 20.1 million people. For comparison’s sake, 23.1 million viewers watched the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals kick off the Sunday Night Football slate Sept. 11.
Lackluster NFL ratings are still the best thing going on television — unless there’s a debate between two of the most polarizing figures in American political history.
Don’t discount the debate
A sentence about Monday Night Football drawing its lowest ratings ever is certain to grab attention. But that’s a misleading figure. More than 84 million people tuned in for the most-watched debate in history, outdrawing the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter showdown from 1980.
Now, the MNF numbers were down from 2012, when a matchup between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears also went up against a presidential debate and Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. But the combined viewership for both of those events was 67.3 million — 59.2 million for the President Obama-Mitt Romney debate and 8.1 million for Giants-Cardinals — offering much less competition than Clinton and Trump. It’s not a fair comparison.
Also, the debate fell well short of attracting Super Bowl numbers. About 28 million more folks tuned into Super Bowl 50 than Clinton-Trump Round 1.
Star players missing in action
The first two prime-time games of the season could’ve featured Peyton Manning and Tom Brady playing quarterback. But instead, thanks to a retirement and suspension over football air pressure, fans got to see Trevor Siemian and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Thanks to a bevy of early-season absences, few of the quarterbacks who have played during prime time have been household names. Discounting the Saints-Falcons matchup Monday night — the debate makes it difficult to include that game as a part of the conversion — the only QB who’s played in prime time so far with multiple Pro Bowl appearances under his belt is Cam Newton (Jay Cutler and Tyrod Taylor both have one).
Heading into the season, Sunday night’s affair between the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears looked certain to deliver a lot of drama. That’s what you typically get whenever Cutler or Tony Romo are involved. But thanks to injuries, neither Cutler nor Romo played. In hindsight, it’s actually amazing that a contest featuring Dak Prescott and Brian Hoyer was able to attract 18.6 million viewers, or in other words, roughly 4 million more people than the average World Series game.
The nine prime-time affairs this season have been decided by an average of 11.5 points. The last four have all been decided by an average of 17.5 points.
In today’s day and age, it’s difficult to keep viewers tuned in when the product isn’t exciting. The theory is that fantasy football players and bettors watch until the end, regardless of the score, but that may not be true in the era of smart phones. You no longer need to watch a game in order to keep track of a player on your fantasy squad — you can just get alerts on your phone.
Unless there’s going to be a rash of blowout prime-time games, this problem seems like it will correct itself.
Why would the NFL’s bad PR hurt it now?
With all due respect to the #BoycottNFL movement, it seems outlandish that a wide swath of people would stick with the NFL through a domestic violence crisis, but tune out when a few players kneel during the national anthem.
The league has flourished despite being inundated with negative PR over the last several years: Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction, the botching of the Ray Rice case, and ignorance towards domestic assault, concussion epidemic, DeflateGate. Every empire has a breaking point, but it’s too early to say the NFL has arrived there.
One would imagine that no region is angrier at the league than New England, which saw Brady get suspended for a quarter of the season due to slightly deflated footballs. Yet, Patriots TV numbers continue to skyrocket. The Week 1 Sunday night game against the Cardinals was the second-highest rated season opener in franchise history. If Goodell failed to alienate Patriots fans from the NFL, then it’s hard to see how he could chase anybody else away.
Perhaps there’s some truth to Mark Cuban’s theory that the NFL’s greed will lead to its slaughter. The product is now overexposed, with games taking place on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday (select teams will also play on Saturday towards the end of the season). The Thursday night contests are especially brutal, with teams often playing without several starters or their full game plans due to the short week. This week’s matchup between the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals promises to be just as sloppy as most of its predecessors.
Still, the atrocious Patriots-Texans game was the only prime-time contest that drew more viewers than last year’s equivalent. So Thursday night affairs can still hold their own if the right teams are playing.
With free agency news picking up almost immediately after the Super Bowl, there’s no longer any real downtime during the NFL schedule. Even the typically sleepy months of June and July are now ripe with talks about holdouts and contract extensions. Maybe the lack of an offseason is driving some fans away, but then again, this year’s draft was the seventh-most watched ever. Why would people who are sick of the NFL tune into the draft and not the games?
The NFL’s declining ratings bear watching through the course of the season. Right now, though, they’re likely little more than an early-season blip.