League ratings in decline, but Week 10 provides uptick
TV numbers rebound with election over, strong slate
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.”