The TV ratings are in, and fall hasn’t seen a strong start for the NFL. Through the first three weeks of the 2016 regular season, average ratings on NFL games are down around 10% from last year's numbers, both for Sunday day games and prime-time games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday.
This is the talk of the industry, since the NFL has become such a key anchor for it.
Speculation on the cause of the slow start abounds: Maybe Presidential election distractions? Anthem protests? Plain overexposure? Streaming undercutting linear? Or, maybe more people are watching the games out of home, enjoying wings and beers and not being counted? Here are my quick thoughts on what's going on:
Check the data. At a high level from Nielsen data, the decline doesn’t appear to be across the board. Some demographics are down much more than others. This is the time to get behind the headlines (“Double-digit Drops in NFL Viewing”) and better understand exactly what is happening. I’d recommend Nielsen’s respondent-level data.
Don’t panic. Let’s wait and see. The season is just getting started, and the NFL is a special franchise. This might just be a slow-starting season. Let’s see what player and team plot lines develop. Let’s see where things stand mid-season.
Be thankful. Even if weakened, the NFL will certainly be a strong sports franchise for a long time, even if it’s not as bulletproof as it once was. Even down 10%, its audiences are massive. It’s on almost every major broadcast network. It’s now relevant 12 months a year. It has its own network competing with other networks.
Normal cultural and generational fandom shifts. Sports and fandom historically rise and fall. That's happened to baseball, golf and tennis. It happened to the Olympics. It happened to auto racing. It happened to bowling -- yes, counting it as a sport here :). The NFL has had an unusually strong run. Its year-over-year declines might just be the reflections of the inevitable shifting sands of sports fandom.
Time to groom replacements. Under any circumstance, I’m sure that all of the top TV sports executives are pulling some extra hours these weeks checking on the long-term programming pipelines, constantly looking for smaller sports that could become big. You can’t survive this business resting on yesterday’s hits. You’ve got to be creating tomorrow’s. Both ESPN and NBCU have made big bets on soccer. Turner Broadcasting has jumped into eSports. High school football’s visibility is growing on TV, particularly in football-mad areas like Texas and the Midwest.
What do you think is going on with NFL ratings?