The NFL ratings decline was an important TV story in 2016, but based on the NFL schedule, expect viewership to increase for the 2017 season.

By Richard Deitsch
April 25, 2017

The NFL’s ratings decline in 2016 was an important television story and one naturally of interest beyond the beltway of sports industry insiders. The league’s viewership declined 9% during the regular season across the NFL's four television partners, Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN and some of the raw data was ugly: NBC’s Sunday Night Football averaged 20.3 million viewers, down from 22.5 million viewers in 2015. ESPN’s Monday Night Football sank to an average of 11.4 million viewers per game, down from 12.9 million in 2015. Obviously against others sports these are incredible numbers but the NFL hasn’t seen such drops in some time.

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As I’ve written and said repeatedly, I think the league was hit with multiple factors last year following a remarkable viewership run. First, the 2016 election campaign was the most divisive and over-covered cycle of our lifetime and as many have noted, the prime-time numbers for the news networks during last year’s election season doubled. There was also the lack of quality quarterbacks in a quarterback-marketed league; the absence of star quarterbacks early in the year including Tom Brady, Payton Manning and Tony Romo; and some truly awful games early; the Carolina Panthers and league MVP Cam Newton struggling after a great year. Mike Mulvihill, the executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy for Fox Sports, offered some interesting thoughts here last February.

I expect the ratings to tick back up over the first quarter of the 21017 NFL season. If they don’t, then it’s time to reevaluate whether last year represented some sort of larger shift in the overall decline of NFL viewership. But as I looked at last week’s schedule release, I think the NFL has set itself up to control a very good ratings narrative early.

For starters the league’s best television draw—the Dallas Cowboys—open with three games in very high profile broadcast windows. The Cowboys play the Giants in the traditional Sunday Night Football opener, followed by the Broncos in the late-afternoon Sunday window on Fox (the most-watched window in television) and then a Monday Night Football game against the Cardinals. Last year the Cowboys opened with the Giants, Redskins and Bears—the Redskins were a 1 p.m. ET game— and Monday Night Football did not air Dallas until Dec. 26. Sunday Night Football opens with the Patriots, Cowboys and Packers over its first three games. Those are traditionally the NFL’s most-watched teams. This should set up a strong early season ratings story.

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Even without Peyton Manning, the league also has a much better quarterback story this year with a full year of Brady, current stars in Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott, the likelihood of Newton rebounding, and young players such as Carson Wentz and Jameis Winston taking another step in their development. My colleague Peter King noted the passers in the first four Sunday night games of the season: Eli Manning, Prescott, Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Luck, and Wilson.

One of the key teams for the NFL’s ratings in 2017 will be the Raiders, as King also noted. Oakland has five prime-time games, plus four doubleheader games that will be nationally televised. As King wrote: “The league will be in a TV mess if the Raiders are not the emerging star team they appeared to be at the end of 2016.” I’m not sure I’d go that far but if the Raiders are good, the NFL’s viewership story will be too.

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Episode 114 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features sports broadcaster Kevin Harlan, who works for multiple outlets including Turner Sports, CBS Sports and Westwood One.

In this podcast, Harlan discusses preparing to call multiple series in multiple cities for TNT during the NBA playoffs; why the NFL is the hardest of the major sports to cover; why he thinks Doc Emrick is best suited for quick-twitch sports; how he morphed from calling Kansas City-area sports (Chiefs, Kings and Kansas athletics) to a national job; whether it’s good to be known for catchphrases such as “no regard for human life;” the reality of knowing he will never call an NBA Finals or a Super Bowl on television; the advice he gave his daughter Olivia, who works for ESPN and travels with the Atlanta Hawks for Fox Sports Southeast; how he’d approach calling the games of Olivia’s boyfriend (Sam Dekker, who plays for the Rockets); how he adjusts to new partners; the differences regarding the networks he works for; growing in up in Green Bay as the son of Packers CEO Bob Harlan; his now famous call from Sept. 2016 of a fan running onto the field during a Monday Night Football game between the 49ers and Rams; why he remains not altogether comfortable with doing that call; his fondness for Doug Collins, and much more.

 

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

2. The MMQB’s King on how the NFL schedule was made.

2a. New CBS broadcaster Tony Romo will call the Cowboys-Chiefs game from AT&T Stadium on Nov. 5 as well as the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day when CBS broadcasts the Chargers-Cowboys at 4:30 p.m. Via the Dallas Morning News, here’s a look at the games Romo might call this season.

2b. Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder examined the Cowboys schedule, which features five primetime games and nine late-afternoon kickoffs.

2c. SI.com’s Mitch Goldich on the 10 worst television games of the 2017 season.

2d. Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz examined ESPN’s Monday Night Football schedule.

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3. Trey Wingo calls the NFL draft the most unpredictable event in all of sports television. “We don’t have a script; there is no second take,” the longtime ESPN anchor said this week. “It plays out as it plays out. You could have made a lot of money last year if you put down a prop bet saying we would use the words ‘gas mask bong’ on the first night of the NFL draft.”

Of all the production bells and whistles for ESPN and the NFL Network coming this week from the NFL Draft Theatre at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, the most notable change in either production is Wingo anchoring the first night of the NFL draft for ESPN. He replaces Chris Berman, who is stepping away from the event after hosting it for ESPN since 1987. Here’s my piece on what ESPN and the NFL Network has in store for viewers.

3a. Metro of Philadelphia had a Q&A with Suzy Kolber.

3b. Let me go company man here for one item: Sports Illustrated has an NFL Draft show on Thursday running on SI.com and Facebook that looks pretty cool. The show will be anchored by Maggie Gray, Andy Staples and Albert Breer (who will not be waiting for Roger Goodell if he knows the picks), with a second set featuring Pro Football Focus staffers Steve Palazzolo and Mike Renner. Palazzolo and Renner will provide analysis and film breakdowns using PFF signature stats. The show will also have taped segments with WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

The SI Draft show goes live on SI.com and Facebook at 7:45 ET Thursday and will be live for the whole first round.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• Thought this Donald G. McRae interview of former NBA player Craig Hodges for The Guardian was fascinating.

Eye-opening reporting from ESPN’s Paula Lavigne on allegations of how Indiana University treated its injured athletes. The Hoosier Sports Report spoke with Lavigne and producer Willie Weinbaum on their reporting.

• Deadspin’s Kevin Draper and Nick Martin listened to the show Mike and the Mad Dog did on Sept. 12, 2001. Here’s what they found.

• Via The Lansing State Journal: Finding Charles Rogers.

• Bleacher Report’s Erik Malinowski profiled Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Some pieces worth reading on the death of Aaron Hernandez:

• Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel: Aaron Hernandez exhibited the slightest change in his final days.

• The MMQB’s Albert Breer: Aaron Hernandez’s Suicide: The Questions We’re Left Asking.

The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins: Aaron Hernandez was no innocent bystander in a bloodstained life.

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• SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg: Aaron Hernandez's brother retraces former NFL star's path.

• The New Yorker’s Eben Pindyck on trying to describe Giannis Antetokounmpo.

• Tennis all but disappeared in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. Now, it is making a comeback. From Nick Pachelli for the New York Times.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Must-reading from The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox: For a second-grader, gunfire, school lockdowns, then the worst violence of all.

• The New York Times reporter Tejal Rao on Kabir Ahmed, who runs a halal cart in New York City.

• 25 Years After the Riots: The Washington Post's Ruben Castaneda Recalls a Near-Suicide Mission.

• From The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins: The founder of a popular South Carolina barbecue restaurant was a white supremacist. Now that his children have taken over, is it O.K. to eat there?

• From Eliana Johnson of Politico: How Trump Blew Up the Conservative Media.

• Wired’s Erika Hayasaki, on the end of pain.

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• NYT reporters Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau had a deep dive on FBI director James Comey. Impressive reporting.

• Can you scheme with fellow passengers to make the airline pay?

• Inside The Hunt for Russia’s hackers, via Buzzfeed’s Sheera Frenkel.

5. NBC Sports announced on Tuesday that Mike Tirico will be taking the Triple Crown hosting duties from Tom Hammond, who covered horse racing for four decades, including 16 Kentucky Derby’s and Preakness Stakes and 11 Belmont Stakes. Tirico will begin with the 2017 Kentucky Derby on May 6 on NBC, and will work the Preakness Stakes on May 20, and the Belmont Stakes June 8-10.

5a. The NFL PR office sent out some interesting information on the length of the Draft. The caveats here: The first combined (AFL-NFL) draft in 1967 consisted of 17 rounds. In 1977, the draft was reduced to 12 rounds. There were eight rounds in 1993 and seven since 1994.

• Longest first round since 1967: 2007 (6 hours, 8 minutes) 

• Shortest first round since 1967: 1972 (2 hours) 

• Longest seven-round draft: 2007 (18 hours, 5 minutes)         

• Shortest seven-round draft: 2015 (13 hours, 45 minutes) 

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