Above all, the NFL trumps ev­ery­thing else

The Peterborough Examiner - - Sports - BEN STRAUSS

The Na­tional Foot­ball League’s Thurs­day night sea­son opener last week — a Philadel­phia Ea­gles’ vic­tory over the At­lanta Fal­cons — av­er­aged 19 mil­lion view­ers on NBC. That num­ber was down from the year be­fore, and so on Sun­day morn­ing,

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump weighed in.

“View­er­ship de­clined 13 per cent, the low­est in over a decade,” Trump tweeted glee­fully, the lat­est salvo in his on-and-off squab­ble with the league. Wide­spread cov­er­age of the tweet fol­lowed across the po­lit­i­cal and sports me­dia, the lat­est re­minder ahead of the league’s open­ing week­end that its rat­ings had tum­bled 10 per cent last year and eight per cent the year be­fore.

Then, on Sun­day, the NFL got good news. CBS re­ported its rat­ings jumped nearly 30 per cent from a year ago, and that it had its most most-watched open­ing week­end sin­gle­header since 1998. (CBS didn’t have a na­tional af­ter­noon game.)

Bloomberg News called the num­bers a “ray of hope” for the league. There was no Trump

NFL tweet Mon­day.

The NFL’s much-cov­ered rat­ings slide has co­in­cided with player protests, se­ri­ous ques­tions about player safety, some­times con­tro­ver­sial rule changes and a chang­ing me­dia land­scape. It has cre­ated a sense of un­cer­tainty about the fu­ture of the league, even as foot­ball re­mains a com­mand­ing cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion. As Mark Lei­bovich posits in his new book, “Big Game: The NFL in Dan­ger­ous Times,” the league feels “perched be­tween world dom­i­na­tion and sud­den death.”

Add in Trump’s at­tacks on the play­ers, who have protested against racial in­equal­ity dur­ing the na­tional an­them, and the league’s tra­jec­tory has come to rep­re­sent some­thing big­ger than just foot­ball. The NFL’s weekly rat­ings can feel like a ref­er­en­dum on the fu­ture of TV, on Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar sport, and on Trump him­self, a man with a cer­tain fond­ness for rat­ings.

“It’s like the un­em­ploy­ment num­bers that come out once a month,” said Ari Fleis­cher, a White House press sec­re­tary un­der pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. “Rightly or wrongly, it’s a weekly news hook where one side gets to rat­ify its view.”

On Fri­day, NBC put out a news re­lease that found a sil­ver lin­ing from the Ea­gles-Fal­cons matchup: its 19 mil­lion view­ers more than dou­bled the com­bined prime time au­di­ence of other broad­cast net­works. The 13 per cent dip could also be con­sid­ered an un­fair slant: last year’s opener fea­tured the Dal­las Cow­boys and New York Gi­ants, two ma­jor mar­ket teams with large na­tional fol­low­ings, and this year’s game was de­layed an hour by weather.

By the end of the week­end, FOX’s num­bers were slightly up, while the Sun­day and Mon­day night games were down. In sum, the NFL’s week­end rat­ings were rel­a­tively flat, ver­sus last year. But does it mean any­thing?

The vari­ables — the matchups, the weather, the news of the day and how com­pet­i­tive the games are — make week-to-week com­par­isons dif­fi­cult. CBS’s 30 per cent bump, for ex­am­ple, comes in com­par­i­son to a week last year when hur­ri­cane Irma dev­as­tated parts of Florida. “You re­ally can’t tell any­thing from one week,” said Marc Ga­nis, a con­sul­tant for sev­eral NFL teams, though he added that the larger trends be­come im­por­tant as the sam­ple size grows.

The macro view, the net­works like to say, is that re­gard­less of rat­ings points, the NFL, rel­a­tive to ev­ery­thing else on TV, is in bet­ter shape than ever. And they’re right. The five high­est rated shows last week were all NFL games.

“The NFL is still the big­gest thing out there,” said Neal

Pil­son, who ran CBS Sports from 1976 to ’95. “If you want to sell cars, you still have to go to the NFL.”

But that doesn’t make the overnight num­bers any less ir­re­sistible.

“I go on Twitter now and I can’t be­lieve how many peo­ple care about this stuff,” said Pa­trick Crakes, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive at Fox Sports who moved into me­dia con­sult­ing two years ago. It’s also not just the NFL. When Tiger Woods makes a run on a Sun­day af­ter­noon at a golf tour­na­ment, fans tweet GIFs about ex­ec­u­tives lick­ing their lips and count­ing their money.

“There’s a greater in­ter­est in me­dia,” Crakes said. “It’s a greater part of peo­ple’s lives now, and it’s chang­ing.”

While the politi­ciza­tion of the NFL’s rat­ings may be new, tele­vi­sion ex­ec­u­tives said the rat­ings them­selves — and foot­ball on TV, writ large — have long been a cul­tural touch­stone. When FOX out­bid CBS for the rights to NFL games in 1993, “Satur­day Night Live” aired a skit in which Chris Far­ley played the jovial an­nouncer John Mad­den. The joke was that Fox, known for its sopho­moric TV lineup, was go­ing to cover foot­ball with a “Mar­ried With Chil­dren” sen­si­bil­ity.

The in­ter­est in weekly num­bers isn’t en­tirely new, ei­ther.

“Re­porters would call me up 30 years ago on a Mon­day morn­ing and say, ‘You’re down eight per cent,’” Pil­son said. “I’d say, ‘So what?’”

More re­cently, at least pre-Trump, fas­ci­na­tion with the NFL’s rat­ings has cen­tred on the league’s ex­cep­tion­al­ism. As the ca­ble bun­dle has frayed over the last decade and a frac­tured me­dia land­scape has carved up au­di­ences, the NFL’s rat­ings held steady and of­ten went up be­fore 2015.

“The story was, look, the NFL isn’t go­ing down and ev­ery­thing else is go­ing back­ward,” Crakes said. “It was amaz­ing!”

But the last two sea­sons have shown that even the NFL isn’t im­mune to chang­ing me­dia re­al­i­ties or the con­tentious pol­i­tics of the Trump era.

If there is one tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit that can be drawn from Sun­day’s pos­i­tive num­bers, said Frank Hawkins, the for­mer head of busi­ness af­fairs and me­dia af­fairs for the NFL, it’s that it headed off a Trump tweet this week. Hawkins said there was likely no cel­e­bra­tion or panic af­ter this week­end’s re­turns in the league of­fice, but that the less Trump talks about the league, the bet­ter it will be able to an­a­lyze its own data.

“That helps sep­a­rate the sig­nal from the noise.”

GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

Jay Ajayi of the Ea­gles rushes for an 11-yard touch­down against the At­lanta Fal­cons in Philadel­phia on Sept. 6.

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