Why NFL TV rat­ings are crash­ing. And how they might re­bound.

The Denver Post - - NFL SUNDAY - By Nick Groke and Nicki Jhab­vala

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.”

David Gold­man, Associated Press file

Among the fac­tors im­pact­ing NFL rat­ings this fall was the con­tentious cam­paign be­tween Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

The Chiefs’ Justin Hous­ton sacks Bron­cos QB Trevor Siemian and forces a fum­ble on Sun­day night last week.

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