The NFL Is Not Bulletproof

  • by , Featured Contributor, October 6, 2016

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?

9 comments about "The NFL Is Not Bulletproof".
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  1. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, October 6, 2016 at 6:49 p.m.

    This can be fixed if the Jints staht winnin agin. Of cawse, I go back to when Giffud wuz catchin  passes frum Connerly, then Tittle. So just give it anutha couple a decades, the Jints' ll be winnas agin. Till then, hail to the Redskins. (Or Dave, in your case, is it hats off to Van Brocklin, then Jurgensen, Retzlaff, and of course Killer Bednarik and the rest of the Iggles?)

  2. charles bachrach from BCCLTD, October 6, 2016 at 7:28 p.m.

    FIRE Goodell!!!!

  3. Tom Gray from WCMH, October 7, 2016 at 10:39 a.m.

    The primetime games have been mostly blowouts or have featured teams with little star power, plus the airwaves are satuarated by football which seems to be on every day of the week now.  The crazy presidential race, and there are a lot more options on TV than ever before (DVR, VOD, Netflix, Amazon prime).  A downturn was inevitable, but when you mix all of the above together, you get a larger decline.  Still the best place to reach a massive audience. 

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 7, 2016 at 11:51 a.m.

    I agree with Tom. In any event, with so many channels and "platforms" popping up, an average minute rating decline for sports attractions is only to be expected. Long term, the real question is how will the leagues monetize their TV  incomes if ad rates get so high that even the most dedicated sports buff marketers start balking---and cutting back. The obvious "solution" is a combination of subscription and ad-supported sports coverage, with consumers asked to pay much more than now to watch their favorite teams cavort on their screens. Exactly how this will work and what compromises the leagues and players' unions will have to make to keep the dollars flowing in their direction, at this point, remains to be seen. However, one thing seems clear. One way or another, we will continue to have pro sports to watch---maybe too much of it.

  5. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360 replied, October 7, 2016 at 11:55 a.m.

    Sunday night is Giants-Packers. Long, sordid history there. Let's see what the numbers are for that game, especially since the second presidential mud wrestling match is up against it.

  6. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, October 7, 2016 at 11:57 a.m.

    Great obersvations Tom. I agree.

  7. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, October 7, 2016 at 11:58 a.m.

    Ed, I think that you're right on target that we'll eventually see some business model changes to how the NFL and their media and marketing partnership monetize the properties and their audiences.

  8. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development, October 7, 2016 at 3:10 p.m.

    We can debate the causes, and they will be important for the fix if it can be fixed, but the fact is every bubble sooner or later breaks and the NFL was a bubble waiting to be burst. With so many games on so many nights, plus highlight shows, dopey court cases, etc., etc., etc., it had to happen. Oh, and don't rule out greed as well as seeing so many all-pros of days gone by now unable to put together coherent sentences or remember game changing plays they made. 

  9. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 7, 2016 at 8:24 p.m.

    It seems doubtful to me that the #BoycottNFL movement and the decline in ratings is a giant coincidence. No, I don't have proof, but denial is hardly a refutation.

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