Why NFL TV ratings are crashing. And how they might rebound.
Aaron Rodgers stands 10 feet tall on the very big screen behind the bar at the View House in Centennial. The NFL really is larger than life. But the smattering of Green Bay Packers fans here to watch their quarterback on “Monday Night Football” are outnumbered. The crowd — with its orange foam fingers and Broncos T-shirts — is here to see Justin Simmons.
The place is packed. Even Simmons, a backup Broncos rookie safety, draws a crowd.
In the Denver area, either the NFL is on TV, or something else is. And between the glow of a game on the big screen and the bright klieg lamps of a live taping of KCNC-Channel 4’s “Monday Live” Broncos show, the bar doesn’t need its own lights. Everything on TV airs in the NFL’s shadow. It did, that is, until this fall. For the first time since the 1990s, the NFL’s supreme dominance of televised sports has faded. Ratings through the first nine weeks plunged by double digits. “Monday Night Football” ratings are down more than 20 percent.
It’s difficult to see that from the Broncos’ bubble that covers Denver, but pro football games in America are not commanding the TV audience they once did. The reasons for the decline, though, appears muddled, depending on one’s view of the sport. But with every dipping overnight rating and every week “The Walking Dead” on AMC outdraws an NFL game on ESPN in prime time, the NFL’s shield gets nicked.
“We are watching a hot-garbage product right now,” Mark Schlereth, a longtime NFL guard, an ESPN analyst and co-host of Channel 4’s Broncos show, said on his podcast. “That’s what it boils down to. It is absolutely ridiculous, and the product is suffering. (Commissioner) Roger Goodell can come out and say, ‘Hey, the ratings are down in prime time and there’s some reason for it, but don’t push the panic button.’
“But it is time to push the panic button,” Schlereth said. “This is not a try-hard league, this is a dogood league. And if you don’t produce in this league, they find somebody else to take your job.”
The NFL is worried. Goodell said last month the league is looking at shortening the telecasts by trimming commercials and speeding up the action.
“We don’t make excuses,” Goodell said. “We look at it and we try to figure out what’s changing.”
What’s the problem?
The NFL’s TV ratings decline early this season was dramatic. Counting Thursday games on the NFL Network and CBS and NBC, Sunday day games on CBS and Fox, Sunday night games on NBC and Monday night games on ESPN, overnight ratings declined in total by an average of 14 percent through the first nine weeks compared with the same period a year ago.
To put in perspective what a massive dip that is, consider that the Broncos-Chiefs game in Denver last Sunday night drew an 11.8 rating. Removing 14 percent of that game’s audience alone would account for about 2 million fewer viewers.
There’s a hitch. In Weeks 10-12 of the NFL season, ratings began leveling off, with about a three percent decline year-over-year, according to Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of programming. What happened between Weeks 9 and 10? The U.S. presidential election.
“If you take a look at the primetime numbers for the news networks during this election season, they’ve all doubled — for Fox News, MSNBC and CNN,” said John Ourand, a media reporter for the SportsBusiness Journal. “Those viewers have to come from somewhere. And the prime-time packages are what’s really hurting the NFL. Those are the ones that are all down about 20 percent.”
Yes, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton can really be blamed for part of the drop. Other numbers suggest something similar. Before the election, the number of people in the U.S. who watched at least one NFL game was down 9.6 percent compared with 2015. Since, the total is down 4.9 percent, according to Mulvihill. And the total minutes spent watching an NFL game, which dipped 4.5 percent before the election, are now down 3.1 percent, Mulvihill said.
But that still shows an overall decline. And, if anything is true in the nearly one month since the presidential election, it’s that the interest in politics has not waned much.
What has changed?
Theories abound about the NFL’s ratings decline. And critics have pounced. Everyone with a grievance against the league can now project their issues about what is to blame.
The quality of play stinks (subjective). Quarterbacks can’t throw (they can). Games are too long (maybe). Referees are blind (more than before?). Too many penalties (flags have increased). Players protest too much (not quantifiable). Concussions are brutal (yes, they are). The hypocritical commissioner doesn’t care about domestic violence (plenty of op-eds on that subject). Too few star players (maybe). The market is over-saturated with a blizzard of games, such as Thursday night (maybe).
“A lot of things have been handled poorly,” New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “But I hope that we’re able to kind of move past that. For players, this is some of the most exciting football that’s been played that I’ve seen. Every time you turn on a TV to watch a game, it’s going down to the wire. There are some unbelievable personal performances and team performances. It’s some of the other stuff that causes that to get lost sometimes.”
For years, the NFL plowed through its competition. The television industry went through massive changes as cable channels expanded, viewing options exploded and broadcast rights fees shot up. The NFL appeared immune to it all. Since the 1990s, ratings increased every year. Until now.
“This has given fans a chance to say, ‘This is what irritates me about the game,’ ” Ourand said. “The NFL can’t fall back on, ‘Well, you’re in the minority because ratings are going up.’ Ratings are going down and (now) I think that they are listening to the fans and they are looking at some of the things in the game.”
The range of issues facing the NFL will not go away. And as they pile up, perception becomes reality. Perhaps every knock against the NFL is finally wobbling the league.
But it might be that the NFL is caught up in something larger. The English Premier League, the other most successful sports league in the world, is suffering its own ratings decline. And none of the specific gripes about football are shared by soccer.
What does unite them is more about the issues of TV viewership. It’s easier than ever to not watch broadcast television. Socalled cord-cutters, an audience that skews younger, can stream TV online through Netflix and Hulu and even Twitter.
“To me, if you get hit with four or five or six competing factors, the numbers are going to go down,” said Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated’s media columnist. “The league for a long time has had an incredible run, where it’s only gone up. The natural course of television order is that something can’t always go up forever.”
What does it all mean?
The Broncos-Chiefs game last Sunday, which matched playoffcontending teams in prime time, seemed set up for a ratings spike. The numbers, though, were dour. That 11.8 rating nationally was the lowest Week 12 overnight result for “Sunday Night Football” since 2008, down 27 percent from the Broncos-Patriots game last season and 16 percent from the CowboysGiants game in 2014.
If televisions tuned out the Broncos-Chiefs game nationally, that’s more difficult to see in Denver. The game drew a 45.9 rating in the Broncos’ market, with a 68 share. Basically half the city watched the Broncos. But even that was a 5.8 percent drop-off in Denver compared to a season ago.
While the NFL is struggling to keep its massive television audience, the appetite remains almost insatiable in Colorado.
“We have our die-hards,” said Michael Spencer, a sports anchor at CBS-4 and co-host with Schlereth for the station’s Monday night show. “There’s a guy named Tom who takes the bus and the train to watch us tape the show. He’s there rain, sleet or snow. He jokes that the only way he wouldn’t watch is if a satellite dropped from the sky and fell on his head.”
With that kind of fandom, the NFL has plenty to fall back on — despite a fall in TV ratings.
“The easiest prediction for you to make is that next year, NFL ratings are going to be up,” Ourand said. “It’s almost a dead certainty to me that they’re going to be up.”
Among the factors impacting NFL ratings this fall was the contentious campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The Chiefs’ Justin Houston sacks Broncos QB Trevor Siemian and forces a fumble on Sunday night last week.