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Fans Explain the NFL’s Ratings Decline

Viewership might be down on prime-time broadcasts, but the league’s consumers are tuned in to all of its problems
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The NFL has a ratings problem. Monday Night Football is down 24% from last year at this time, Sunday Night Football is down 19% and Thursday night is down 18%. We asked readers of The MMQB to share their theories and explanations behind the double-digit losses for prime-time games and the general sense that the league is losing viewers.


The NFL and the networks changed the rules and the conduct of the game to make it all about scoring in an effort to boost ratings and attract the casual demographic. And so these new NFL fans and fantasy fans only care about scoring. There is no need to watch an entire broadcast when all you care about is, “Who scored?”

With the RedZone channel, Twitter, highlight shows and a hundred fantasy outlets saturating the airwaves, ratings are down for traditional broadcasts, and they will continue to decline because it’s a lousy way to consume NFL football. The old-timers watched an entire game but are tired of all the commercials, while the newly minted fans happily consume the NFL in short bytes from non-broadcast sources. Why would anybody sit through three hours of commercials when they can get all the scoring plays with an investment of 15 minutes?

The owners, league and networks fell in love—not with their best, most loyal customers, but with the people who weren’t their customers yet. That was a strategic mistake on their part, thinking they could keep the fans they already had AND change the game enough to win over the new set of fans.

It’s kind of ironic that the NFL went hard after the casual fans and got exactly that; casual fans who won’t bother with a three-hour broadcast. The game is still popular, but the gravy train that drives the revenue, network broadcasts, is on the way down. And they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.

— Hans, Cardiff, Calif.

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While I am sure that the presidential election is a big factor in the ratings decline, I think a contributing factor has to be NFL RedZone. You get to see every major play, and scoring play, for EVERY game and with zero commercials! Not sure why the NFL even allows it, but I would much rather watch RedZone than sit through a network broadcast for 3.5 hours—almost half of which are commercials.

— Dale Spaulding, Gulf Shores, Ala.

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I think the elephant in the room concerning the decline in ratings for NFL games is the one element that has been touted for years as the reason for increased popularity of the NFL: fantasy football. Fans are getting to the point where they care more about “their” fantasy team than they do the actual teams. With the rooting interest shifting from the results of actual football games to the stats compiled by individual players, the interest in devoting three hours to watching one game just isn’t there anymore. Fans can watch the RedZone channel, the highlight shows or just check the stats of “their” players on their smartphones, freeing up their Sundays to pursue other interests.

— Mike Sebastino, Fincastle, Va.

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The NFL is more popular than ever, but they have been diluting the delivery mediums for a while now. Last year I watched every game I could on my Verizon phone, and that made it so much easier to 'cut the cord' on traditional cable, knowing I'd still be able to watch NFL games live! Plus with games on Yahoo and Twitter I can still watch the NFL without ever getting a cable subscription. So maybe the NFL ratings aren't declining, it's traditionally delivered television programming that is.

— Josie, Gainesville, Fla.

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While the ratings drop is probably due a number of factors like election year and concussions, I really wonder if the problem might be that folks are just getting sick of how little football is in a football game. Commercial breaks constantly. After a touchdown, there’s nearly eight minutes where all that happens is an extra point and a kickoff. Being a good little NFL fan, I overcome this by rewarding them with purchase of NFL Sunday Ticket so that at least there’s some action—yet sometimes nearly every game will be in commercial at the same time. For the single games I usually make sure I have something else to do (laundry, guitar, cleaning, cooking). Otherwise I find it basically unwatchable. And imagine kids—they don’t sit watching live TV. They watch on Netflix or somesuch, or if possible record things. More than that, once the football goes to break they pick up their phones, get absorbed and don’t look up again for 20 minutes. Anyway, I’ve been wondering when the rotten product they are putting out will catch up with them.

— Dan, Oregon

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Field goal... commercials... kick off into the end zone... commercials... player injury... commercials... play under review... commercials... time out... commercials... punt... commercials... two-minute warning... commercials... Halftime score, 6-3... commercials... .


—Pete Mackin

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I find the biggest shift here in the United Kingdom is NFL GamePass.

No longer do I have to put up with long nights watching games live on Sky or one of the terrestrial channels into the wee hours on a Monday and Tuesday. I can watch the RedZone Channel on a Sunday to catch the Sunday 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. kickoffs and then catch up the following day with the consolidated late game in my own time.

No more going to work on four hours sleep, no more making excuses to my partner when I am less than attentive, no more trying to explain why I stay up watching rugby with helmets. I was traveling by train on Tuesday and watched the Bucs and Panthers on my phone!

Times have changed and the speed of technology these days is going to change viewing of all TV, not just sports.

— Dave, Newcastle, England

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Count me as one who no longer watches the NFL as much as I used to, and don’t really miss it when I'm not watching. Sheriff Goodell has really made it the No Fun League. Everything about the NFL has become so corporate that it is no longer a game with personalities that are fun to watch. Let there be some passion shown and celebrations. We need some personalities back in the league. The game is being overofficiated. Simply tired of pass interference calls for marginal contact. The game is played on the field and should be officiated on the field and not in an office in New York by the suits.

— Samuel Kupper

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Too many penalties, replays and commercials are ruining the experience. I don't care what some "rules expert" in a studio thinks about a call. And I certainly don't tune in to watch officials over-legislate a game. I hate all the pass interference and personal foul calls.

— Chris

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As I sit here and watch the MNF [Oct. 17 Jets at Cardinals] game, it hit me why ratings might be down. The product is unwatchable. Apparently the referees think we tune in to the games to watch them? Ten penalties for the Jets and nine for the Cardinals. Terrible.

— Jeff Schramm, West Virginia

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My thoughts on viewership stem from the product on the field and the NFL wanting to saturate us with games and greed. One reason I was turned off to college football was the increase in games. The NFL seems headed in that direction. Next thing you know there will be Friday and Saturday night games. The beauty of the NFL used to be Sunday games and a powerful Monday night game.

Monday and Thursday night games this year have been dreadful, even the Sunday night games. Also, three hours of watching a TV timeout after every kickoff and punt is agonizing. Add in concussion issues, pass-happy offenses, lack of tackling ability, overall bad play, and the NFL is facing a slippery slope.

This really all boils down to one thing. Money in the owner’s pockets, which is a total turn off. Respect the game!

— B, Denver

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I think Mark Cuban summed it up best when he remarked that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.

As we approached Week 6 of the NFL season, I had watched maybe one hour total of NFL football, either the Thursday night Twitter feed or the tail-end of the Sunday night game. If I had done this 10 years ago I would have been pretty clueless about how the NFL season is going. But today, the NFL is so oversaturated that I am aware of all the major storylines, who is up (Minnesota, Oakland, Atlanta) and who is down (Arizona, Carolina, Jets). I don't even need to watch the NFL to follow it and hold a conversation about it.

In its desire to hold the attention of the sports world 24/7/365, the NFL has created a monster where you can follow the NFL without ever watching the games. They have promoted themselves so well that you don't have to actually consume the product in order to enjoy it.

— Craig Smith

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Has anyone looked at the quality of the teams playing as the reason for the decline? I watch pretty much all day Sunday, plus every prime-time game. It just feels like there is a lack of must-watch games this year. Where are all the great teams playing against each other? There do not seem to be that many great teams to begin with this season. Patriots, Steelers in the AFC. Vikings, Seahawks and Packers and Falcons in the NFC? The Raiders, Broncos, Cowboys have good records but they don’t seem very dominant. Look at the lineup of Sunday and Monday night games so far this year. In past seasons those matchups were usually something to look forward to. This season I don’t feel like I am missing much if I don’t watch those games.

— Avi Teitelbaum

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“Last weekend, I painted the kitchen and applied shelf paper in the cupboards. Not because I had to, but because it truly sounded more interesting than the games.”

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I probably am an odd football fan. I came from southern California so I have no allegiance to a specific football team. I just want to watch good football, no matter who is playing. I also don't have cable, DirectTV or a dish; I rely on the Big Three networks and what they broadcast. And I've had a good time as a football fan— until this year.

The games have been terrible this year. I don't know whether it’s early in the season or whether it’s spectacularly bad luck in picking what games to broadcast. But there are occasional glimmers followed by large swaths of nothing. The broadcasters have rarely provided any compensation for a bad game. They honestly seem as bored as I am. To me, it's easy to compare the NFL corporate brand to the decline and fall of the Roman empire.

And, finally, every time the game stops with an injured player, I question whether I should even be watching from a moral perspective. Since there’s no compelling game to accompany the injuries, I’m finding that I’m turning off the TV to ease my conscience.

Last weekend, I painted the kitchen and applied shelf paper in the newly painted cupboards and drawers. Not because I had to, but because it truly sounded more interesting than the games. And that is really saying something.

— Nancy Bailey

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Yes, I believe the ratings have sunk because of these elections. But there is another reason why. In particular, the matchups. I can’t sit there and watch these games. For every Pittsburgh/New England there are 10 or so Panthers/Bucs games. Especially on prime time, but Sundays too. The teams aren’t good anymore. Most teams are bad, and the ones that are on the fence are riddled with star injuries. The reason for the bad teams? The quarterbacks. Years ago, every game was winnable. Every team had a franchise quarterback. Some were better than others, and some had bad games. But they were household names. Now the NFL has maybe six or eight bona fide stars, and a boatload of people who are awful. A bad quarterback vs. another bad quarterback I won’t watch. A good one vs. bad one is iffy, depends on the matchup. A good vs. good is like a mini-Super Bowl to me. That’s why I am so glad to live in Pittsburgh with Ben. We don’t have a chance to fade off with a quarterback like that.

— Don

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Three reasons viewership is declining:

1.  Kap
2.  Kap
3.  Kap

He’s got a right to express himself, but he (and the league, and the owners and coaches who support him) need to understand their disrespect of the flag, the country and the thousands who have died to give him the right to express himself is producing some serious consequences for them.

They also need to get their heads out of their rear ends and recognize the real problem is Kap and not all the other excuses they are coming up with. Until Kap started showing his utter disrespect I was watching two to four NFL games per week. Now I watch none. Furthermore, I’m not purchasing products made by their advertisers.

— Jim Coleman

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For the previous 18 years, the face of the league was Peyton Manning. Now it is a guy who doesn’t stand for the national anthem.

— Doug England

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I am a 32-year-old man whose family has had season tickets to the 49ers as long as I’ve been alive. This year the NFL has lost me. For the last three years I’ve lived in Brooklyn, and that hasn’t stopped me from flying to SFO on Saturday and back on a Monday in the fall. Until this year.

I would guess that I watch no more than one quarter of NFL football in a week, total, and that’s mostly to check in on my fantasy players. The off-the-field issues of domestic abuse, gun charges, and drugs (PED or otherwise) combined with their treatment on concussions have soured me. I understand the owners are trying to make money, but when that is their clear number one goal over player health or what is right for the team’s city, they lose me.

In my mind, their image is tarnished. The NFL appears so focused on being reactive to situations rather than proactive. Josh Brown is the latest example that the NFL can’t be trusted and can't get it right.

I've read this week that maybe my generation can't watch a game for three hours, but you could find me on a Sunday afternoon in August watching a full San Francisco Giants game. Plus I still can’t get enough college football. I believe making the NFL 365 days is another factor. This week alone there’s six [national] games on TV. Even if I didn't have a problem with their image, would the NFL prefer me to take a break from paying attention in the fall or in the summer?

— Matt, Brooklyn

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