There has been lots of talk about the decline in ratings for the NFL. Yes, they’re down. But the world is hardly ending.
First of all, the NFL s still the most dominant programming on television. Secondly, if you want to figure out why there is some drop-off this season, the last place to look is to the response to the protests over the national anthem. Remember, the networks never used to televise the anthem (other than the NFC and AFC Championships and the Super Bowl). They were forced to for a week or so, but of late that has not been part of the show.
Here are some more realistic reasons for the drop-off. As always, there’s not one cause, but combined, one can make a case for erosion.
There has been a dilution of the product, with primetime games airing three times a week (four on some occasions). The league and the networks attempt to feature the marquee teams in those games. Other than the flex schedule for the Sunday games, if the networks and the NFL miscalculate the importance of the games, they are left with some dubious matchups. Also, fans of those marquee teams are often left without motivation to tune into the Sunday afternoon games.
Another factor this year is the lack of dominant teams in the major markets. No team from New York, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco or DC in the playoffs this year, and the Giants completely collapsed. Teams like Seattle and Green Bay, which have built up national followings with star quarterbacks, fizzled and also missed the playoffs. I found myself watching far less football with my team out of it from early in the season.
In the last year or so there, has been a blurring of the lines in the Sunday packages. Historically one network (FOX) gets the NFC package, and the other network (CBS) gets the AFC package.
If an NFC team was playing on the road against an AFC team, that game would be televised on FOX; the opposite would be the case for CBS, which carries an AFC visit to an NFC stadium. The NFC package was worth more given that there are more major market teams in the NFC.
This is subtly starting to change, as we are seeing NFC games on CBS and AFC games on FOX. In my opinion, this leads to more confusion, and also little connection between announcers and teams.
When I came out to L.A. in 1991, the Raiders and Rams were a couple years away from leaving the market. For well over 20 years, Los Angeles was without a team. There are now two in the second biggest market in the country — and what that means is several “A” games that would have aired there in the past are excluded, given the requirements of airing Rams and Chargers games rather than the one most of the rest of the country sees. I have not seen data, but I believe having two teams in L.A. hurts the overall NFL delivery.
A big part of the popularity of the NFL is fantasy football, which I believe has led to a different way of consuming the games. The focus is shifting from games to individual performance, which can lead fans to the league’s RedZone channel. When my son graduated from college a few years back, he would invite his friends over on Sunday afternoon. They were all in fantasy leagues, and would watch RedZone and sit staring at their laptops following their fantasy teams.
(RedZone isn’t rated by Nielsen, but this piece says it gets about 900,000 viewers per week.)
Across all of its broadcast windows this season, NFL ratings were down about 10 percent. The primetime ratings of the Big 4 broadcast networks? Down 13 percent. So the league is in no worse shape than the other shows it outrates by a mile.
This season, at least three games were televised from London, which start in LA at 6 or 7 a.m. That’s four games on a Sunday, which has to result in some burnout. By the time the Sunday night game rolls around I’m catatonic.
Finally, the game itself has changed with more delays for instant replay. I know more and more people who DVR a game and start it and hour or so after kickoff to fast forward through the commercials AND the delays for replays. The game is also less physical than it was 10 or so years ago, especially when it comes to pass interference. I understand all the reasons for the change, but it makes for a less exciting game.
The point of this rant is there are several factors that, to me, make more sense in accounting for the ratings decline than taking a knee.
Also, bottom line: I wouldn’t worry about the NFL.