The average NFL game was viewed by 14.9 million people, down from 16.5 million last season.
Overall NFL ratings for this season dropped by 9.7% compared to last season, according to data released by Nielsen on Thursday. This represents and even bigger slide than the 8% dip in ratings from 2015 to 2016.
Virtually every noteworthy NFL game program saw its viewership decline. NBC's Sunday Night Football dropped from 20.323 million to 18.175 million, ESPN's Monday Night Football from 11.390 million to 10.757 million and Thursday Night Football (which aired on NFL Network as well as CBS or FOX) from 12.438 million to 10.937 million.
Also concerning for league and television executives is the lack of blockbuster games that score at least a 15.0 household rating. Only the Week 16 matchup between the Steelers and Patriots reached that mark, while three games did so in 2016 and 15 games did it in 2015.
The ratings dip is almost certainly the result of a confluence of circumstances rather than one specific impetus. Multiple marquee teams had disappointing seasons—the Giants and Cowboys, for example—and many of the league's top stars (J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Rodgers to name a few) missed significant time with injuries.
The league also dealt with the specter of a number of controversies stemming from players protesting during the national anthem, a move sparked by Colin Kapernick last season. President Donald Trump said in September that players who protest during the anthem should be "fired," comments that led to widespread protests in Week 3.
Another potential factor is the growing popularity of the now-ubiquitous NFL Redzone Channel, which switches between live games to showing scoring opportunities and highlight plays.
There's also the unavoidable fact that television ratings are down across the board as young generations continue to gravitate toward cord-cutting. Less cable subscriptions means less viewership, generally.
SI.com's Richard Deitsch discussed the reasons for the ratings dip with Sports Business Daily's Austin Karp and Ad Age's Anthony Crupi.
It's not all dreary news for the league, however, as the NFL remains far and away the biggest attraction on television. Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football were the two highest-rated primetime programs of the year. The NFL accounted for 37 of the 50 most-watched television programs of the season, and Monday Night Football was the most watched cable program of the year, even outperforming HBO's smash hit Game of Thrones.