Declining NFL Television Ratings Presented at Meetings Grabbed Attention of Owners

In the background of the meeting with players about the anthem protests was the issue of a potentially shrinking audience and what could be done to solve it
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NEW YORK – “If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won’t play. Period.”

Those words from Jerry Jones on Oct. 8 were widely taken as a salvo delivered from an owner to all the players using the national anthem as a platform for protest.

But as I see it, that was no declaration of war on guys kneeling. I don’t think the Cowboys boss was even talking to players. My feeling: he was talking through the players, and hoping his message would land in living rooms from El Paso to Wichita Falls.

And to explain why, I’ll give you the three words that should serve as your guidepost in explaining almost everything NFL: Follow the money.

The Cowboys need those people in West Texas and on the Oklahoma border to watch. The NFL needs those people tune in too. And the proof came in the ratings not that you read about this week, but rather the ones that were privately presented to the owners over the league’s two-day meetings in lower Manhattan.

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The focus Tuesday and Wednesday was on the players’ desire to have a stage to address social causes, and the associated protests during the anthem that resulted. But in the background loomed the reality that the discord of the past few weeks wasn’t good for anyone’s bottom line, and the ratings might just be the first proof.

“There’s no question this had an impact on the business,” said Giants owner John Mara. “But this is an important social issue. And sometimes you have to put the interests of the business behind the interest of issues that are more important than that.”

It’s an admirable thought. It’s also not exactly the NFL’s endgame here.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has seen the league’s television ratings decline in various categories over the past two years.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has seen the league’s television ratings decline in various categories over the past two years.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look at the fit in Arizona for Adrian Peterson; Brett Hundley’s past and future in Green Bay; what’s ahead for the Jets; and the players finding an arena where they can be partners with the owners.

But we’re starting with the NFL’s ratings issue and how the protests during the national anthem have played into it. And there’s a nice jumping off point here in the numbers that were presented to the general assembly in Manhattan this week, and that The MMQB obtained. You may have already seen the figures from Nielsen that show an overall decline of 7.5 percent in total viewership, comparing this year’s ratings to last year’s, which the NFL believed were down from 2015 because of the election.

What you didn’t see is consistency in how the numbers sunk across the board, something the owners showed concern over inside those meetings rooms. Consider these:

• There are six time-related viewing windows the NFL measures every week. Through six weeks, the NFL’s ratings were down in 22 of 36 windows.

• The NFL’s average household rating is currently 25.1, down from 26.9 over the same period last year, and the 28.1-28.7 range where it sat from 2013-15.

• Twenty-five of 31 teams (excluding the Chargers, because of the move) are drawing lower local numbers than they did in 2016. Nineteen have dropped 5 percent or more, including brand name teams like the Cowboys (7% drop), Patriots (8%) and Steelers (6%), and both New York clubs (the Giants are down 7%, the Jets are down 37%).  Conversely, only three teams (Chiefs, Bucs, Lions) have improved by more than 5 percent.

• Digital streaming numbers are improving, but not at the rate that TV numbers are falling. ESPN counts the stream crowd as 3 percent of its viewership of Monday Night Football, which is the best of all the game-carrying networks.

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Now, it’s also important to understand that TV ratings across the board—not just sports—are dropping for a large number of reasons, mostly related to technology, the amount of options people have, and cord cutting.

In fact, one team executive looked at the numbers, and actually didn’t see them as all bad. He said, “I took away that compared to TV, the NFL is actually stronger year over year, compared to other programming. But the league does need to better understand how change in habits will affect ratings long-term.”

That said, this is an NFL that has grown used to having everything it touches land on a permanent upward trajectory in both profitability and popularity, so seeing any sort of decline is jarring to some of the guys in that room. And one of those people is Jones, who is nothing if not a master at understanding how to monetize anything you could possibly put in front of him.

That’s why when Jones spoke to his own players eight days ago, in the wake of what he said Oct. 8, his message was clear. We’re partners, and over 90 percent of our audience will never set foot in the stadiums you play, and we have to be cognizant of how easy it is for any of them to tune you out, and work to address your causes without burning the business.

Again, no one is claiming that fights with the White House’s social media wing and players kneeling during the anthem are even close to the only reasons for the professional football model being shaken up a bit. But the fact is, that model has been shaken up a bit, and the league doesn’t sit on its hands waiting for situations like this to steady themselves.

Continuing the discussion on ratings and being proactive in finding answers won’t solve the league’s problems. But as Jones, and others see it, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.