After the first two weeks of the NFL season, there’s a clear storyline that has emerged:
Think pieces about the NFL’s quality of play are en vogue.
From The Ringer’s Kevin Clark to Bill Barnwell of ESPN to that old NFL bible—The Weekly Standard—this week saw a ton of NFL observers examine the league’s quality of play as well as the perception behind that. The headline of Clark’s piece didn’t hold back: How Football Stopped Being Fun.
How does that correlate with NFL ratings, which is more the focus of this column? Well, that depends on how you want to interpret the numbers. The invaluable Sports Media Watch reported that nine of the 13 NFL windows through Week 2 have posted a decrease this season year over year. On a positive note for the league: The Giants-Lions on Monday night game did trend up. It drew 12.3 million viewers, up 1% in viewership from Eagles-Bears last year (12.1 million). But as Sports Media Watch noted, the game was down from the 12.5 million who watched Jets-Colts on MNF in Week Two of the 2015 season.
CBS has suffered early. Per Anthony Crupi of Ad Age, through the first two weeks of the season, CBS's Sunday NFL windows had averaged 13.9 million viewers, down 10% versus 15.2 million last year. Sports Media Watch said CBS’s 8.4 rating for its Week 2 single header lineup was the lowest for a Week 2 single-header since at least 1998.
NBC had a particularly ugly night with the Packers-Falcons. The game drew 20.2 million, well down from last year’s Week 2 game (Packers-Vikings, 22.8 million) and the Seahawks-Packers in 2015 (26.4 million). It was the least-watched Week 2 Sunday Night Football game since 2008. Crupi reported NBC’s three primetime games so far had averaged 22.1 million viewers, down 7% from 2016.
Fox was aided by a massive number for the Cowboys-Broncos game—26 million viewers—thanks to a lightning delay that took the game’s conclusion past 8:00 pm. ET. But that number was down from 2015 when the Cowboys-Eagles in the national window drew much higher. Crupi reported that Fox’s two national windows in 2017 have averaged 24.4 million viewers, down 3% versus 25.1 million for its first two national windows of 2016.
The most positive NFL ratings story so far comes from, of all places, the NFL Network. The network’s opening broadcast (Texans-Bengals) was up 2% in viewership. This vital chart from Sports Media Watch spells it all out.
The league can rightfully point to potential factors for decreases, including Hurricane Irma impacting vital markets. There’s also this stat I saw in Barnwell’s column: Through the first 30 games of the 2017 season, the average contest had been decided by 12.9 points. The quality of games—and quarterback play—has been far higher in previous years.
Is it early too make larger judgments? It is, especially given some of the external factors (e.g. Irma). But the NFL is likely a little concerned. I think you can make some legitimate ratings assessments by Week Four. “It's early yet,” Crupi said. “No need to snort a Xanax.”
NFL and sports TV executives are hoping he’s right.