Should the NFL be worried about ratings?

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NEW YORK — The NFL is used to crushing the TV ratings game. But this year, it’s in a serious slump. Four weeks into the regular season, the league’s ratings are down 11% across FOX, CBS, NBC and ESPN. And everyone in the industry is starting to take notice.

Were this some other kind of programming, it might not be such a big deal. But for a large part of the year every year, the NFL is TV — beating everything else that’s on by millions of viewers and consistently delivering huge ratings that networks and advertisers have come to count on.

For years, the league seemed impervious to the problems that have been affecting other offerings hurt by the move to streaming and the Millennials’ turn away from traditional fare. But now the people who depend on pro football for their businesses can’t be blamed if they’re wondering: Is it time to panic?

The industry’s Chicken Littles can’t have been calmed by the performance of the Thursday night game this week, which saw overnight ratings that were down 17% compared to the same game last year. It’s easy to dismiss that as a product of a matchup between the Carson Palmer-less Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers that was never going to excite audiences.

Last year’s game wasn’t a great matchup either, though, as it was between the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts, who were playing without star quarterback Andrew Luck.

And Thursday Night Football isn’t the only issue.

Viewership for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” the premiere game of the week, is down 13% compared to last year. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is down 17%. The Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS are down 3-4%, according to Nielsen data.

Still, it may be too soon to think of this as a real, permanent problem for the NFL and its broadcasters.

It’s still early in the season, and the matchups in the marquee games, like this Thursday night’s, have been lackluster. And viewership for the Monday night game that coincided with the first presidential debate cratered because the debate itself was the most-watched in American history.

Indeed, the whole presidential election, and all the attention it’s gotten, could be a big factor. That’s one reason the NFL itself has been saying it’s not worried. An internal memo sent around the league on Friday and obtained by ESPN’s Darren Rovell attributed the overall drop to several factors, including the dearth of marquee pairings and the presidential race.

“The NFL continues to be far and away the most powerful programming on television, and the best place for brands and advertisers,” the letter said.

But the league needs to start getting concerned if ratings are still down in late November, when the election is over and fan interest should heat up in anticipation of the playoffs.

It’s possible they will have reason to worry then. Brian Hughes, a senior vice president at Magna, which monitors audience trends, thinks the issues that have affected the broader industry are now being seen in NFL viewership and isn’t optimistic ratings will rebound.

“It impacted entertainment programming first, but now it has started to affect live events and sports as well — previously thought to be the last bastion,” he said.

But he said networks and advertisers would likely continue to view the NFL as a “prestige brand.”

“[W]e believe they are willing to lose money on it,” he said. “With the rights fees being what they are, it’s hard to imagine them turning a profit. Those agreements are locked in until 2022, so we don’t see a lot changing in the near term.”


  • phacepalm

    The main reason fans are not watching this year…… Krapernick & his Klan. There will be many more fans not watching, buying or listening if this KRAP keeps up.


    A lot of fans said they’d stop watching because of lowlife Kaepernick, he is disgusting. I’ve been a Packers Fan since the early sixties. I’m a Gold Season Ticket holder. I haven’t seen it happen yet, maybe it has, but if any of the Packers would start taking knees or sitting during the National Anthem, they’d sadly lose my support. Which is sad because as weird as it sounds I consider the Packers MY TEAM, Not necessarily the players team to come in, play for a few years, pull garbage like Kaepernick, AND THEN LEAVE. I was here Long before players like Kaepernick showed up and will be here long after players like Kaepernick leave. I hope the PACKERS AND THE NFL KEEP THAT IN MIND.

  • phacepalm

    I have been a Packer fan since the the mid sixties too. I am also a football fan. If one packer takes a knee or sits I am done! So far, so good. I will not watch pre- game shows or other games that are on though. I will also not watch the Packer game if the opponent takes a knee.

  • Paul Fredericksen

    The lack of sportsmanship, dancing around like fools and jumpiing in the stands after scores or a big play are sickening enough. If you score a touchdown act like you have been in the end zone before. Poor sportsmanship! Bad examples for kids! However when these elitist rich morons use the game as a political platform I am turned off of football completely and other pro sports and found I can do without any of them. Watching on tv is grueling enough with the horrible commercials stacked up like I-94 during rush hour. The game is 1 hour long but takes 3 1/2 – 4 hours from start to finish. Another joke is how the NFL panders to the odds-makers and allows their trademark team names to be used for gambling purposes. The problem with that is the almighty point spread. Gotta hit the point spread! Some of my friends noticed that flags seem to come out at strange times and they are suspicious that the game may be regulated. Not saying the game is fixed or regulated but it might be possible to make a case that it could be regulated. Hope that is not the case! Appearances are everything!

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