League rat­ings in de­cline, but Week 10 pro­vides uptick

TV numbers re­bound with elec­tion over, strong slate

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Ed­ward Lee

Ravens wide re­ceiver Steve Smith Sr. al­ready had a plan for how to spend a rare week­end off af­ter Thurs­day night’s 28-7 vic­tory over the Cleve­land Browns.

“I am go­ing back to Char­lotte,” he said. “I doubt I will watch any foot­ball.”

Smith isn’t the only one re­frain­ing from watch­ing NFL games on tele­vi­sion. TV rat­ings for NFL games have suf­fered a steep drop this sea­son, rais­ing a red flag about whether the sport is do­ing enough to re­tain long­time view­ers and at­tract new ones.

As of last month, view­er­ship for “Mon­day Night Foot­ball” was down 24 per­cent from a year ago, ac­cord­ing to Sports Il­lus­trated’s MMQB. Rat­ings for “Sun­day Night Foot­ball” were down 19 per­cent and “Thurs­day Night Foot­ball” was down18 per­cent.

With the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in the rearview mir­ror and a strong sched­ule of games this past week­end, rat­ings fi­nally moved back in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion Sun­day. NBC’s broad­cast of the Seat­tle Sea­hawks’ 31-24 vic­tory over the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots on Sun­day night posted a 14.3 rat­ing, the high­est over­all rat­ing for a Week 10 game Sun­day night since a Pa­tri­ots-New York Jets game in 2011.

Fox Sports an­nounced that its Week 10 sched­ule of games drew a 14.2, which was sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than the 11.7 rat­ing for the same week of games in 2015. One of the games was the Dal­las Cow­boys’ dra­matic 35-30 win against the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

But ESPN’s air­ing of the New York Gi­ants’ 21-20 win against the Cincin­nati Ben­gals on Mon­day night mus­tered only a 7.9 rat­ing, which was down from an 8.6 for a Hous­ton Tex­ans-Ben­gals game in Week 10 last year.

The Ravens’ win on “Thurs­day Night Foot­ball” earned a 3.5 rat­ing.

WJZ, the Baltimore CBS af­fil­i­ate, would not dis­close its rat­ings for Ravens games this sea­son. The sta­tion has re­leased numbers in past years, when rat­ings have been up.

As in other pro­fes­sional sports, tele­vi­sion con­tracts are the NFL’s fi­nan­cial lifeblood. The net­works paid more than $5 bil­lion col­lec­tively to tele­vise the league’s games this year and will con­tinue to do so for sev­eral years. If rat­ings plum­met, fu­ture TV deals (the cur­rent ones ex­pire in 2021 and 2022) could shrink.

NFL spokesman Alex Ri­eth­miller said the league is not pan­ick­ing over the numbers.

“I think we need to wait and see where we net out at the end of the year,” he said. “I don’t think any­body’s go­ing to over­re­act af­ter the rat­ings that we’ve seen up to this point, con­sid­er­ing the elec­tion and all of the other things that are po­ten­tially at play here. [Sun­day] was a great start for post-elec­tion NFL foot­ball with some of the great games we had.”

Speak­ing at a New York Times DealBook Con­fer­ence on Thurs­day, NFL com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell ad­dressed the is­sue of rat­ings drops.

“Peo­ple are still en­gag­ing with our games at the same lev­els. They may not be en­gag­ing as long, and that can have a num­ber of is­sues,” he said. “You might have a bad game, you can have a lot of coun­ter­pro­gram­ming, and that could be at­trac­tive at that time. Those are the facts of the world, and we don’t make them as ex­cuses. We say that’s what we’ve got to deal with.”

Robert Thompson, Syracuse’s trus­tee pro­fes­sor of ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and film in the S.I. Ne­w­house School of Public Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and found­ing di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of Pop­u­lar Tele­vi­sion, ques­tioned whether league of­fi­cials were pre­pared for the de­cline.

“I think the NFL is not used to this As of last month, view­er­ship for “Mon­day Night Foot­ball” was down 24 per­cent from a year ago, ac­cord­ing to Sports Il­lus­trated’s MMQB. kind of thing be­cause ev­ery other genre and ev­ery other type of pro­gram­ming has been hit by these types of things for decades since cable came out,” he said.

The rea­sons for the fall­ing rat­ings are nearly as di­verse as the po­si­tions on the field. They in­clude cov­er­age of the U.S. pres­i­den­tial race be­tween Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton, the lack of ap­peal for cer­tain matchups, and the pres­ence of other en­ter­tain­ment op­tions such as cable net­works, Net­flix and so­cial me­dia.

Thompson said the NFL’s de­ci­sion to add prime-time games on Sun­day, Mon­day and Thurs­day and ship some games to Lon­don might have over­sat­u­rated the mar­ket for foot­ball.

“Foot­ball, through­out the decades, has proven pretty im­mune to no­tions of sat­u­ra­tion and pretty im­mune to no­tions of frag­men­ta­tion,” he said. “This sea­son may be the one that shows there is a ceil­ing to all of that, and they may have about hit it.”

The web­site Sports Me­dia Watch has been cov­er­ing sports me­dia since 2006. Its founder, who goes by the sin­gle name Paulsen, said the NFL’s drop is not un­like the ones base­ball, golf and auto rac­ing have sus­tained re­cently. He pointed out that the league’s numbers are still en­vied by other sports.

“I don’t know how dam­ag­ing it’s go­ing to be be­cause ul­ti­mately, if ev­ery­one’s de­clin­ing and you’re still the king of the hill, I don’t know how much you have to worry about,” he said. “The NFL is do­ing well. It’s just not do­ing as well as it has been, and it’s not Te­flon any­more in the rat­ings.”

The play­ers them­selves have be­gun to no­tice the TV rat­ings drop. Two weeks ago, Sea­hawks cor­ner­back Richard Sher­man pointed his fin­ger at com­mis­sioner Good­ell and the NFL for crack­ing down on player cel­e­bra­tions and strip­ping the sport of its “fun” as­pect.

Last week, New Or­leans Saints quar­ter­back Drew Brees and of­fen­sive tackle Zach Strief ar­gued that wide­spread mis­trust of the league of­fice is con­tribut­ing to the slide in pop­u­lar­ity.

Browns left tackle Joe Thomas agreed with Sher­man.

“I think they would be wise to re­mem­ber that the NFL is about en­ter­tain­ing — first and fore­most — and they do not want to do things that take fun and ex­cite­ment out of the game, and that in­cludes al­low­ing play­ers to be in­di­vid­u­als and al­low them to show some of their own per­son­al­ity, be­cause that is why peo­ple tune in,” Thomas said last week. “You want to see [Pitts­burgh Steel­ers wide re­ceiver] An­to­nio Brown or you want to see some other star in the NFL play, and you want to en­joy his per­son­al­ity. I think tak­ing that away is not a smart move.”

Ravens tight end Den­nis Pitta doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily agree with that. In­stead, he be­lieves the league can of­fer a bet­ter prod­uct to the fans.

“They want to see good games,” he said. “They want to see ex­cite­ment and big hits on the field and all that. That’s al­ways what it’s been about. Peo­ple don’t tune in to watch some­body cel­e­brate and dance when he scores a touch­down. They like to see the touch­downs.”

DAVID RICHARD/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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