By Christopher Gumina
(Digital Sports Desk’s Sports Business and Journalism Program)
NEW YORK – The decline of the NFL TV ratings over the past several years has quickly become a hot topic in the world of sports. There are a number of theories as to why fewer people are watching NFL games.
Many, including President Donald Trump, believe that the player protests during the national anthem are the root cause of the ratings decline. Others are sure that the decline is caused by increasing worry over important health trends, such as increased concussions, CTE, and general player safety. However, both of these theories are seemingly off the mark. There is very compelling evidence that pins the decline of NFL TV ratings on two other key factors: the change of consumer TV viewing habits, and an over proliferation of NFL games on television.
First, it is important to put the decline of NFL ratings into proper perspective. The NFL’s viewership declined 9% in 2016, and another 8% in 2017. The majority of the NFL’s audience falls in the 18-45 age demographic, and within that audience the ratings declined 12% in 2017.
NBC averaged 18.2 million viewers for its slate of NFL games, which were the network’s lowest numbers since 2008, when it averaged 16.6 million viewers.
For the second straight season, ratings declined for Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and Thursday Night Football. In 2017, only one regular-season NFL game received a Nielsen rating higher than a 15 (meaning that 15 percent of the public participating in the Nielsen ratings service watched the game). In 2016, there were three games rated 15 or higher. In 2015, there were 13 regular season games with a 15-plus rating.
Clearly, the NFL has experienced sharp rating declines over the past two years. However, the NFL was not the only entity to see declines in viewership in 2017.
Overall, NBC was down 19% in 2017, Fox was down 8%, CBS was down 19%, and ABC was down 15%. In fact, broadcast networks lost 16% of their viewers, and cable networks lost 11%.
Terry Lyons – a longtime sports media and communications executive with the NBA and founder of DigitalSportsDesk.com – attributes the decline mainly to massive changes in millennial viewership.
“The youngest generation is not tuning-in to television they way it had traditionally been done, say in the ’60s, ’70s, and 80s,” Lyons explained recently. “I think there’s generally a change in viewing habits.”
It is his belief, a belief shared by many industry experts, that these massive declines in ratings across all of television are mostly caused by younger people no longer watching or subscribing to over-the-air (OTA) or pay TV, preferring offerings from video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
Therefore, it’s easy to see that the NFL’s ratings have fallen considerably less than the ratings of television as a whole. In fact, the NFL’s share of a rapidly shrinking TV audience has actually grown larger over the past two years. So while the NFL ratings are down, the numbers are not particularly troublesome to the multi-billion dollar sports league when they are viewed in comparison to TV ratings in general.
Another potential factor in the decline of NFL TV ratings are a proliferation of NFL games available on TV, causing an over saturation of the product.
“I’m a big believer that a big part of the NFL ratings decline is not because of social issues, like taking a knee and all the things that are commonly written about,” said Lyons. “I’m a believer that the NFL itself, through multiple games on throughout the week with a lot of different (out of market) teams added to the commercial-free Red Zone channel on Sundays, they’ve more or less cannibalized their own ratings.”
There is more football on television than ever before. Prior to 1987, there were really only three windows during the week where NFL games were broadcast: 1 p.m. ET and 4 p.m. ET on Sundays, and then Monday night. Since then, the NFL has steadily increased the number of viewing opportunities for its fans, which is not necessarily a good thing.
Sunday Night Football was added to the NFL slate, and Thursday Night Football went from being broadcast only on Thanksgiving Day to being shown every week on a regular basis, as part of the business plan and launch of the NFL Network.
After the bulk of the college football season is completed, a few of the so-called Thursday Night Football games are televised on Saturdays, which makes little sense.
The NFL also plays a slate of games in London, which created yet another TV window at 9:30 a.m. ET, meaning that a serious football fan could theoretically sit down and watch football from 9:00am to Midnight on a given Sunday. For avid football fans, add in a full set of college football games televised all day long on Saturday and there is more football being broadcast now than ever before. Having so many games causes football fatigue, when fans grow tired of being couch potatoes and won’t watch multiple games per week. This, by extension, causes the drop in ratings from one season to the next.
There are a few solutions to this problem. One solution is already gaining traction, according to the Sports Business Journal. Media executives and some sponsors are lobbying the NFL to reduce its 18 game Thursday Night Football schedule back to 8 games. This would add 10 games to the Sunday NFL schedule, strengthening the core NFL product aimed to the home and road markets which boosts ratings.
There is also reportedly talk of ditching the early morning starts of the London games. While these 9:30am ET games make sense as the NFL cultivates its European audience but, taking the time difference into account, the morning offerings generally have low TV ratings.
If the NFL moved those games to later in the day, it would further strengthen the aforementioned core product, and hopefully prevent the football fatigue that is driving viewers away from the sport.
Editor’s Note: Digital Sports Desk will feature sports business and opinion posts from a variety of students studying Communications, Journalism, Sports Management and related fields as part of our new series aimed to provide serious sports industry candidates with an opportunity to voice their viewpoints and be heard.
The author of this article, Christopher Gumina, is a high school student from New York City.