Power Rankings: The reasons why NFL ratings are down
We all say we’re concerned about the long-term effects of playing football, but as this issue took front and center over the last few years, ratings continued to rise. Sports fans obviously have a high threshold for physical violence—look at the rise in MMA’s popularity. Who knows…maybe increased attention to concussions and proper protocol could hurt ratings more than players suffering.
9. The crackdown on celebrations
The NFL is curiously emphasizing penalties against celebrations when fans—especially young ones—love them. When more pundits are mentioning the Key and Peele character Hingle McCringleberry and the three-pump rule than actual players, the league should realize there's a problem. The NFL is trying to establish a level of decorum that simply isn't popular. But could that make an impact in six short weeks?
8. The Cubs' playoff run
Of all the contingencies Roger Goodell has had to deal with, the Cubs being the favorite to win the World Series had to be the last one he considered. But the National League Championship Series set FS1 records on Sunday night against Football Night in America. But still, the ratings for the Sunday night game between the Colts and Texans did a 9.0/15 overnight rating, while Game 2 of the Dodgers/Cubs NLCS did a 5.0/8, so baseball still has a good amount of catching up to do. Alex Rodriguez told The Sporting News that MLB is loaded with young stars and has a window of opportunity to take over football. That’s a nice sentiment if you love baseball, but this is a Cubs story—if the Dodgers advance to the World Series, they won’t provide any extra competition on the ratings front.
7. Daily fantasy sports bans
DFS almost certainly helped inflate the ratings to record highs last season, and legislative action limiting FanDuel and DraftKings in many states, plus the end of the daily ad blitz has cut into that boost this year. Fans who have money riding on certain games are more engaged and will watch more.
ESPN broadcaster Sean McDonough called out the number of flags in Monday night’s Jets-Cardinals game: “If we’re looking for reasons why TV ratings for the NFL are down all over the place, this doesn’t help. The way this game has been officiated is not something anybody wants to watch.” This is another complicated statement because overall penalties are slightly down from last season. Through six weeks, officials have assessed 1,288 penalties, compared to 1,357 last season. But the number of flags has been increasing over the last few years and Monday night was one of many games that felt sluggish because of them. The NFL is clearly still trying to dissuade defenders from mugging receivers and it’s not working, which results in plenty of flags—and some noticeable non-flags (what up, Atlanta!).
5. Increases in competition and cord cutting
Fewer people are instinctually watching traditional television. Netflix reportedly added 3.6 million subscribers in the third quarter alone. Anecdotally, my queue of shows to catch up on seems longer than ever. Cord cutting didn’t affect ratings at all last year, but perhaps that has changed. Cuban warned this isn’t just an NFL challenge. “I think it’s going to be a challenge for a lot of sports,” Cuban told the Dan Patrick Show. “And I’ll base my observation off my experience with my 7-year- old son and his friends. I can’t get him off his laptop watching YouTube Minecraft videos.”
4. National anthem protests
Ratings have skyrocketed in an era of scandal (Spygate, Bountygate, DeflateGate). But many argue Kaepernick protesting the national anthem is different. Certain polls support that notion—32% of respondents in a Rasmussen Poll in early October said they were less likely to watch a game because of the 49ers quarterback. What started as concern for criticism of police and the military has developed into a discussion of players protesting anything. The argument is that athletes get paid a lot of money to entertain us, not to inform us of their political views. Colts owner Jim Irsay explained this theory to USA Today’s Jarrett Bell: “I think it’s the wrong venue. It hasn’t been a positive thing.” The Kaepernick factor could be proved if college ratings continue to hold steady or rise. That would mean the demand for football on TV is still the same, but the NFL brand is now less attractive. That doesn’t mean fans won’t watch their own team, but if you’re a marginal fan or live in a state without a pro team, perhaps Kaepernick is enough to make you watch less pro football.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told reporters in 2014 that the NFL was putting out too much product: “When you've got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That's rule No. 1 of business." The NFL had the same primetime schedule last year, but maybe this year, fans’ patience with the Thursday night package has worn thin. The league expanded from 8 games to 15 in 2012 and the mid-week game went from a novelty to routine. There’s also the recent explosion in shoulder programming—ESPN leads the way with NFL programming all week long. The pregame shows start earlier than ever on Sundays—if this trend continues, the pregame shows are going to start on Wednesday.
2. Lack of star-studded matchups
The first two night games this year featured the Broncos without Peyton Manning and the Patriots without Tom Brady. Tony Romo is out. Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck are having tough seasons. Also, there are a lot more mediocre teams this year. Last season, the Cardinals were 13–3 and the Jets were 10–6, and they came into last Monday night’s matchup at 2–3 and 1–4 respectively. All three primetime packages have featured more losing teams than the NFL could have expected. And as Roger Goodell noted in a Wednesday press conference, the primetime games haven’t been close and viewers have flipped the channel before the final whistle.
1. The presidential election
The NFL has had the bad luck of going head-to-head against two of the most highly-watched presidential debates in history. The league sent out a memo pointing to the hotly contested 2000 election and a similar decrease in ratings. But it’s not just that those two primetime games—the election seems to be robbing attention away from everything in American culture. A friend told me the other day that he misses following the Kardashians because he’s so preoccupied with the election. "Trump is ratings gold for the news networks," says The MMQB’s Andrew Brandt. "He is taking viewers away from all non-news programming including, of course, NFL programming." The way Brandt sees it, it’s a mistake to reach any conclusions about ratings until after Nov. 8.