- An unlikely culprit could be behind the significant decline in NFL ratings this season: November's Presidential election.
Blame Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
But we’ll get to that in a bit.
One of the current parlor games playing out in sports media executive suites is why the NFL’s television ratings have dramatically fallen through the first four weeks of the season. Most notably, each of the league’s primetime showcases (Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football and Thursday Night Football) are down double-digit percentage drops in viewers. In a particularly troubling trend, ratings for Monday Night Football were down 19% prior to Monday’s Giants-Vikings game, including the lowest-ever viewership in the history of the series when just 8.047 million viewers watched the Saints-Falcons. (That game went head-to-head with the first Presidential debate.) The Giants-Vikings drew a 9.1 overnight rating on Monday, which was the highest MNF overnight of the year. That’s the good news. The bad news? It was still down 8% from the 9.9 for last year’s Week 4 matchup (Seahawks-Lions) that didn’t feature the New York market.
More troubling data: NBC’s Sunday Night Football drew an 11.0 overnight for Steelers-Chiefs on Sunday, down 26% from the same window last year with the Saints-Cowboys. That’s an alarming drop, even with Dallas as the NFL’s best television draw and a blowout game. (The NBC Sports p.r. department said in a release that the Steelers’ 22–0 first quarter was the most-lopsided opening quarter in 155 NBC SNF games. One can admire the rapid response team, but you can’t spin lemonade out of tomato juice.)
On Sunday, per Sports Business Daily, Fox led all Week 4 NFL broadcast windows with a 14.8 overnight rating thanks to the Cowboys-49ers, but that number was down 10% for the comparable Week 4 matchup last year.
CBS did see an increase on Sunday, drawing a 10.6 for its singleheader window, up 2% from a 10.4 in 2015, per SBD.
So what’s up? Well, one theory making the rounds—and it’s very plausible—is that the craziness of this Presidential election campaign has siphoned viewers (particularly males) away from football. In a terrific piece by Sports Business Journal reporters John Ourand and Austin Karp, two of the sharpest observers of sports television ratings, the reporters detailed how the news networks—Fox News, CNN and MSNBC—have gained significant viewers against the losses of the sports networks. One of the executives quoted in the SBJ piece was Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’s senior vice president of programming and research, who said that the opening weeks of the NFL season reminded him of the fall of 2000, the only year from 2000 to 2010 where all four NFL TV packages dropped from the previous year and a year which saw a very tightly contested Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Interestingly, Ourand and Karp pointed out that World Series viewership dropped by 22% in 2000, mirroring some big events this year (such as the Summer Olympics) and long-running series (Sunday Night Baseball), which had big drops in viewership.
Personally, I’m buying what Mulvihill is selling. I believe the hyper-insanity of the political news cycle and the reality show nature of Trump’s candidacy has taken some viewers away from sports. I don’t think it’s the sole reason, but I think it’s a big one. What would back up this thesis would be an uptick in the NFL ratings from the middle of November to the end of the season.
I’m also of the belief that the league has been hurt this year by a number of factors including a smaller group of star quarterbacks (no Peyton Manning or Tom Brady), an awful set of Monday Night Football games, a potential slowing down in fantasy football growth, some fatigue from what Mark Cuban discussed as the NFL expanding its television package to an additional night, and some truly awful games on Sunday.
There’s also this: Nothing goes up forever, and the NFL was due for some sort of ratings correction.
There are those who posit that the migration to digital services and cord-cutting from television are responsible for the drops, and long-term this will impact the ratings, for sure. But the shift this year feels too dramatic for that to be the primary reason. Plus, if you look at the overall viewership numbers on, say, Twitter’s broadcasts of the NFL, they are minimal.
I think the big tell will be how the NFL does from the middle of November to the end of the regular season. The election will have passed (we hope), and the winter weather will keep many at home on Sundays. If the ratings are flat versus 2015 or tick up during the last six weeks of the NFL’s regular season, you’ll know the Presidential election campaign had a lot to do with it. If not, well, then we’ll re-examine some other theories.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Given the magnitude of Vin Scully and Dick Enberg retiring last weekend, I thought you’d be interested in a collection of pieces on both sports broadcasting icons.
• Here’s a transcript of the final inning of Scully’s career.
• The Los Angeles Time has been printing letters from fans to Vin Scully.
• Check out this great conversation between Scully and Enberg that aired on Fox Sports San Diego.
•ESPN’s Jayson Stark had a great piece featuring those around the game on Scully’s impact.
• The San Diego Union Tribune’s Bryce Miller on Dick Enberg’s last broadcast.
• MLB.com had 11 calls from Scully’s final game.
• Scully’s goodbye to Dodgers fans.
•The Los Angeles Times’ editorial board on Scully.
• Fox’s Joe Buck offered this tribute to Scully.
• Photos from Scully’s final day in the booth.
• Video of Scully leaving the booth.
• A photo gallery of Enberg’s final weekend.
• The Post Game’s Samuel Chi, on sharing the booth with Vin Scully.
• The Sports Illustrated cover story (written by Tom Verducci) from last May on Scully.
• SI’s Jay Jaffe on Scully being the soundtrack of his professional life.
1a. Lya Vallat, a coordinating producer at the NFL Network, passed along her favorite interaction with Scully:
I was a 23 year old AP [associate producer] for channel 4 San Diego, which televised Padres game—my first real producing gig of my career. Matt Vasgersian was the host and I had to book the opposing teams’ television analysts or play by play. The Dodgers were in town so I called Vin’s producer, Boyd, and asked if Vin would do an interview. He said I should meet Vin at the clubhouse and ask him myself. So I did.
“Mr Scully?” I asked.
He said, “Don’t call me Mr Scully. Call me Vin!”
He obliged and we went walking arm and arm down to the field for the interview. During our five-minute stroll, Vin asked 20 questions about MY life. I told him I was a Padres ballgirl, originally from Bakersfield, and my Dad is a farmer named John like Farmer John (eats hot dogs, etc.). His laugh was contagious, his kindness immeasurable. When we reached the field, the Padres were taking BP. All of a sudden, BP stopped and all of the players starting clapping. Vin said, “Wow, you made quite an impression.” The infamous laugh returned.
I escorted Vin to the set. He did the interview and then I walked him back to the clubhouse, arm and arm, like two peas in a pod. Later, I went up to the press box. My boss waved me over and asked how I got Vin to come on the field to do the interview. I said, “I just asked him to.” Then my boss proceeded to tell me that Vin NEVER goes down to the field, hence the standing O from the players. I guess being naive paid off.
I will cherish that memory forever. And every time I see Vin, he always asks me, “How’s Farmer John from Bakersfield doing,” then laughs that magical laugh. Legend. Gentleman. My Hero. Thank you Vin, from the bottom of my heart!
2. Per Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily: Heading into the last weekend of the regular season, ESPN had averaged around 1.0 million viewers for its 2016 MLB game coverage, the lowest figure for the network in at least the last decade. Karp said ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball had averaged 1.6 million viewers, the window’s lowest average in at least a decade.
2a. Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling, Cal Ripken and Sam Ryan will call the Red Sox-Indians Division Series for TBS. Brian Anderson, Dennis Eckersley, Joe Simpson and reporter Matt Winer have the Rangers-Blue Jays/Orioles series.
2b. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball team of Dan Shulman, analysts Jessica Mendoza, Aaron Boone, and reporter Buster Olney will call the Giants-Mets wild-card game on Wednesday.
2c. MLB Network will televise Game 2 of the NLDS between the Cubs and the NL wild-card winner. That broadcast will feature Bob Costas, John Smoltz and Ken Rosenthal. Costas, Jim Kaat and Jon Paul Morosi will call MLB Network’s telecast of Game Three of the NLDS between the Nationals and Dodgers.
2d. Fox declined to forward their playoff announcing teams prior to the announcement of their playoff announcing teams.
2e. The Mets broadcasts on SNY (New York) were the most-watched local broadcast in MLB. The games averaged a 2.73 household rating (+4% vs. 2015) and 263,850 total viewers (+9% vs. 2015).
2f. Fox announced that Alex Rodriguez would return as a postseason MLB analyst.
3. Episode 79 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features CBS NFL analyst Bill Cowher, who works as a pregame analyst on The NFL Today and Thursday Night Football.
In this episode, Cowher discusses his journey from Super Bowl-winning coach to broadcaster; how he prepares each week for his two roles; the toughest adjustment to broadcasting; how he would feel if one of his players decided to take a knee during the national anthem; how to remain objective for viewers despite having coaching friends in the league; the best locker room speech he gave; whether NFL teams will stop asking him about returning to coaching; embarrassing himself in front of Mick Jagger on two separate occasions; traveling on the road with his musician-wife Victoria, who is known professionally as Queen V; the joys of spin cycle and yoga and not being recognized every day; being the father-in-law of two professional athletes, and much more.
A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me. Hope you enjoy.
3a. Fox NFL broadcaster Pam Oliver is the upcoming guest on the SI Media Podcast (Episode 80). The episode debuts Thursday morning of iTunes and Soundcloud.
In the episode, Oliver discusses what the public often misses about the role of sideline reporting; how executives (nearly all men) choose those for the position; which NFL teams are media-friendly for reporters in her position; how she prepares for her job; and why there are lack of women of color in her field. We also had a long discussion on Fox Sports’s decision two years ago to remove her from the top NFL team (Joe Buck and Troy Aikman) in favor of Erin Andrews. Amazingly, Fox’s bosses initially pulled her off all NFL broadcasts before Oliver talked her way back into being on the roster. That move has proven to be a wise one for Fox.
“I don’t blame her for any of this,” Oliver said of Andrews. “You don’t turn it down. But I think everybody but me when the hire was made [Andrews was hired by Fox in 2012] thought it would impact me. I remember foolishly when someone asked me, ‘Well how does this impact you?’ I said I don’t think it does. I think there is room for everyone. Naively. So there was no reason for her and me to be enemies. There was no face to face, our paths don’t really cross. Of course we knew of each other coming in, but there is no way to think that there wasn’t a promise made to her (about being on Fox’s top NFL team). We both understand that and I think most people now understand that. It was a big splashy hire. She started on the group [broadcasters Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch] I am now, which was at that point the C or D team. But most people saw through that, as a temporary thing for me to get through the last year of my contract. But I don’t blame her because if the situation was reversed, you know, you want to be with the top crew. That is what you should aspire to do. There is going to be collateral damage and things can get messy and that one did. But to personally hold her responsible is something I don’t do.”
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• Susan Schneider Williams, Robin Williams’s widow, on the terrorist inside her husband’s brain.
• This Frontline piece is the single best thing I’ve seen on television on the background of Clinton and Trump. Worth the time investment.
• Via the L.A. Times: Why your grandparents are finally calling it quits.
• Shirley Jackson wrote 17 books while raising four children—and she couldn’t have had a successful career without them.
• The crime family at the center of Asia’s animal trafficking network.
• From Denver’s Westwood: The Denver Post is being bled to death.
• How Donald Trump set off a civil war within the right-wing media. Fascinating media piece by Robert Draper.
• What journalists say when they are criticized for mishandling coverage of Trump.
• Via The Guardian: High Hitler: How Nazi drug abuse steered the course of history.
• The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen breaks through the noise on this profile of a Trump supporter.
• From Buzzfeed: What to do with your life after you’ve already been the world’s youngest dictator.
• Here’s what was in the first issue of National Geographic.
• Via Globe and Mail (Toronto): How has rape become such a common trope of television drama?
Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s S.L. Price has an excerpt of his new book on high school football in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, once home to NFL-ers Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Ty Law, Darrelle Revis, Tommie Campbell, and Jonathan Baldwin.
• Michigan’s No. 1 high school football team, Cass Tech, walks a mile each day to get to their practice field from school.
• The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham goes behind the scenes with David Ortiz for his final season.
• HBO’s Eric Raskin reported an oral history of the Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad fight that was held 18 days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, just three miles from Ground Zero, at Madison Square Garden.
• If you missed this the first time, read this piece from Brett Forrest and Jon Fish on wrestling teammates who became enemies in Miami’s drug wars.
• L.A. Times writer Kevin Baxter on MLS being the only major professional sports league in the U.S. whose teams don’t fly charter.
• SI’s Jon Wertheim on the search for Benny Anders.
5. Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp reported that NBC’s 3.4 overnight rating for Sunday’s final day of play at the Ryder Cup was down 17% from a 4.1 overnight from 2012—the last time it was held in America. NBC drew a 1.8 overnight for the final day (7 a.m. – 1 p.m. ET) of the 2014 competition, which was held in Scotland. The final Sunday drew 4.3 million average viewers, up 95% over 2014 and down 22% from 2012.
5a. Last Friday (Day 1 of the Ryder Cup) the Golf Channel had its most-watched day in history, with 673,000 average viewers. The network said its coverage of the afternoon session (1:30–6:56 p.m. ET) drew 1.5 million average viewers. Golf Channel will air all-day coverage Tuesday on Arnold Palmer, including a replay of his memorial service tonight.
5b. Per SportsTVRatings: ESPN’s PTI is down 19% in viewership since Labor Day.
5c. The Big Lead reported longtime MLB analyst John Kruk has left ESPN. On Tuesday, Kruk tweeted out, “Just want to clear things up, I was not fired from ESPN. It is what was said, we mutually agreed to part ways.”
5d. Pardon My Take, a humor podcast out of the Barstool Sports stable co-hosted by Dan (Big Cat) Katz and the gritty NFL pundit known as PFT Commenter, vaulted to the top of the Sports & Recreation chart on iTunes this week, beating ESPN, Fox Sports, The Ringer and many other sports media outlets with much bigger distribution engines. That’s an impressive brand-building story.
5e. ESPN announced its next set of 30 for 30 films.
5f. Sports TV Ratings also provides a handy chart of how many households have cable sports networks measured by Nielsen.
5g. Thoughtful post by the national college football writer Travis Haney, on parting ways with ESPN.