NFL's TV ratings still falling?

Has the drop in interest in the NFL continued into Week 2 — and if so, why? Not all of the data has come in yet, and what we do have has been overshadowed a bit. The bigger ratings news turns out to be the all-time worst ratings for television’s self-congratulatory Emmy awards, which probably didn’t overlap much with the NFL crowd anyway:


Ratings for the Emmys have fallen to an all-time low, with this year’s ceremony attracting just 11.3 million viewers.

The show, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel for ABC, fell 5% from last year’s broadcast and 22% in the key demo of adults aged 18-49. There was major competition from Sunday Night Football on NBC and a strong performance by the first part of the CBS documentary The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey, as well as continued coverage of the New York and New Jersey bombings. In previous years, ratings have been boosted by NFL lead-ins.

That’s part of a trend, too:

The news follows an eight-year low for this February’s Oscars and a 34% year-on-year drop in viewers for August’s MTV VMA awards.

Frankly, I’d rather watch 30 minutes of national-anthem protests than tune in a half-hour of awards shows these days. That has nothing to do with politics, but with sheer boredom. In any case, we’re clearly talking about two different audiences. One audience tunes in to see self-congratulatory celebrations by overpaid celebrities, and the other wants to see … er … an awards show. Hey, wait a minute …

Watching celebrities give each other awards is about as compelling as following the latest Brangelina news, although it’s a fair bet that the same audience exists for both. It’s just shrinking considerably, and perhaps in the case of award shows at least, from over-saturation. Both genres suffered this past week in the data already available, and it’s the NFL’s second sack in as many weeks if it holds up. Despite having a close game and a storied rivalry for Sunday Night Football, the ratings actually sank from the previous week’s sharp drop over 2015:


Is it time for Roger Goodell and the NFL to hit the panic button?

Last week’s Sunday Night Football matchup drew in its lowest ratings in seven years (Monday Night Football didn’t fare any better) and last night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings fell even further. According to Deadline, the primetime portion of last night’s game scored a 13.7/22 in Nielsen’s metered market ratings as the Vikings went on to beat the Packers 17-14. Not only is that down 18% from last year’s ratings, it’s also a 9% dip compared to the SNF opener just last week.

So what’s causing the sharp drop in interest? Clearly, many people have gotten turned off by the political protests during the national anthem, but The Guardian’s DJ Gallo argues that the play hasn’t been compelling enough to keep viewers watching:

NFL TV ratings are down through the first two weeks of the season and theories on the reasons why are already flying. It’s the changing media landscape as more Americans cut the cord and stream while they scream. It’s the first wave of people unable to stomach the violence in the game. It’s the impact of conservative activists boycotting the league over Colin Kaepernick.

Probably, maybe and unlikely. (Kaepernick has one of the best-selling jerseys in the league now, so it’s unlikely he’s done anything but help the NFL’s bottom line.) But while we’re randomly tossing out theories like we’re Jameis Winson hurling the ball into a crowd of Cardinals defenders, here’s one more theory: people aren’t engaged by the 2016 season yet because we already saw this exact season a year ago.

See if any of these mid-September storylines sound remotely new to those of you reading who fall in the older-than-age-one demographic. The Broncos are winning with a stifling defense and middling quarterback play. The Patriots are running away from their sub-rate divisional opponents while the Deflategate fallout drags on. The Bengals can’t win a big game. The Browns can’t win any game. Aaron Rodgers seems off his game. Andrew Luck is losing the ball and games. The Steelers are faring well without a suspended Le’Veon Bell. And the Cowboys are hoping to hang around in a bunched-up NFC East division while Tony Romo recovers from injury.

It’s all the same. This year we don’t even get to wring our hands about the early-season struggles of a supposed serious contender. The Panthers and Cardinals were the top two seeds in the NFC last year and both lost their openers. So is everyone now panicking in Charlotte and Phoenix? Nope. Both blew out their week 2 opponents. So much for that. Carolina and Arizona and the rest of their fellow 2015 playoff teams are 16-8 on the young season. Only Washington is winless. Every team that was good last year still looks pretty good today (as long as you admit Washington wasn’t actually a good team last season). Parity can produce entertainment; inertia does not.


If that’s the case, though, that would be an argument for a lack of growth in viewership, not a sharp falloff. People wait for months for the NFL to get back to regular-season games, and they’re not checking scorecards to see if the relative competitiveness of each team is the same. Aaron Rodgers being off his game (if true) isn’t a reason to turn off the games altogether; in fact, it might make for a compelling story line going into a big division rival’s new stadium for a prime-time game.

Gallo’s other two alternatives might be a bit more likely, but that suggests that the NFL has systemic issues that will be all but impossible to reverse. If “cutting the cord” is enough to lose 15% of the NFL’s audience, that means (a) that they’re not all that engaged in the first place, and (b) it will get much worse in the future. The issue about game violence can improve, but the league has to make sure that the game remains entertaining rather than be seen through a blizzard of yellow flags.

Gallo dismisses the impact of a “boycott” over the pre-game protests, but I suspect that’s not exactly what’s happening. I tweeted this out last night and got a lot of feedback in both directions:

I’m not calling for a boycott, and in fact I’m still planning on watching NFL games, for now anyway — just not as many as I’d normally watch. I skipped the game last night after the announcement of the national-anthem protest because it took the fun out of it for me, and I don’t have a particular attachment to either team. Nor do I have a problem with protest or even the subject matter of it; for me, it’s a matter of both intruding on what should be a politics-free zone of entertainment and fun on a normally unifying tradition that goes back a century in sporting events. It’s more dreary politicization in a culture where everything’s becoming politicized.


The players have the right to speak their minds, and the league has the right to allow them to do it and turn itself into a protest platform. I’d happily defend their rights to do so.  That doesn’t mean I’m required to participate in it or tune in to watch it. The more this arena becomes politicized (and especially in one direction), the more likely I am to look elsewhere for entertainment. And I suspect that I’m not alone in considering that version of the option play.

On the other hand, perhaps the players have a legit beef with the league, too. As one veteran who supports the protests responded to me last night, this is the same league that quietly took money to conduct patriotic speech on behalf of the military without disclosing the arrangements. They exploited the players, venues, and fans for that purpose; one would hope that most of the players would have supported it, but did they have a choice in the matter? So it’s not as if the NFL platform has been pristine the past few years before this. Did any of us object to that before the financial arrangements were exposed? I certainly didn’t, so … perhaps that’s something to consider in giving this fad a little leeway, and a little time to expire.

The NFL has been a great escape for its fans from the larger problems of the world. The less of an escape the NFL provides, the more its fans will eventually find their own escape. Is that what we’re seeing now? It’s still too early to tell, but with the other issues hanging over the league, they may not want to wait for long to find out.


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Stephen Moore 12:00 AM | February 22, 2024