It's official: NFL ratings drop farther than in 2016

Roger Goodell might have gotten a fat contract extension out of the NFL, but it’s tough to see why. For the second straight year, fans have tuned out in record numbers, according to the Wall Street Journal’s analysis of ratings for the 2017 season.  The poor numbers have the league’s broadcast partners demanding some answers for what ails the product:

The decline in TV ratings for National Football League games accelerated in the recently completed 2017 regular season, though NFL games remain among the most-watched programming on television.

The average audience for a game was 14.9 million this season, down 9.7% compared with 16.5 million viewers for the 2016 regular season, according to Nielsen. That is a steeper decline than the 8% viewership erosion last year.

So what’s caused the two-season plunge in viewership? Fans insist it’s the social-justice demonstrations before the games, while NFL owners point to a range of other issues not exclusive to football, particularly viewer frustration with slow play and commercial interruptions. That was the excuse after 2016 — that the presidential election impacted viewership as a kind of fantasy league all on its own. ESPN’s Darren Rovell points out that the election fig leaf no longer applies:

The drop comes after the NFL had hoped to stem an 8 percent ratings slide from last season by experimenting with television commercials and trying to speed up the game.

Last year’s slide was partly attributed to a lost audience due to the presidential election. This year, the league was challenged with fans upset at players protesting during the National Anthem, an action that led to a league face-off with President Donald Trump.

Yeah … so much for the commercial-break theory. Advertisers might want a word from Goodell about that.

TV execs admit the protests are part of the problem. However, they see overexposure as a bigger issue, with games spread out all over the week and fans less likely to tune in on core Sunday-afternoon games as a result. Some of the data supports that as at least a contributing factor:

The Thursday and Sunday NFL prime-time packages took the biggest hits in viewership. “Thursday Night Football,” which is shared by CBS, NBC and the NFL Network, averaged 10.9 million viewers, a 12% drop from the previous season.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” averaged 18.2 million viewers, an 11% decline from the previous season and its smallest audience in almost a decade.

However, SNF finished the season as the #1 primetime show this fall for the seventh year in a row, demonstrating the strength the league had built before the decline of the past two years. That’s about the only good news from the ratings report, however. Monday Night Football also finished 2017 with its smallest audience ever, dropping 6% from the 2016 season. Core Sunday games also declined precipitously, 11% on CBS and 9% on Fox. It’s possible that eliminating some of the other games might push viewership up in those slots, but it’s difficult to say that with any certainty.

The big drop in mid-week games might give the NFL Players Association some unexpected leverage. Both sides of the labor divide may have incentives to eliminate Thursday night games, long a sore spot with players who claim that the short preparation week leaves them more susceptible to injuries and contributes to poor play. If the owners feel it’s becoming less profitable to play on Thursdays, they might agree — except that some Thursday night games are exclusive to the league’s own broadcast channel. That might be itself the subject of some debate with its other broadcast partners when it comes time to renew contracts.

And the competition’s gains make it tough to credit the explanation that the issue is outside of the league’s control:

The NFL isn’t in a vacuum, as the viewership drop is indicative of the general environment as less television is being watched and cable subscriptions have declined. The NBA, however, has seen a 20 percent increase in viewership this season as compared to 2016-17.

The NBA plays a lot more games, too, all of them televised. Saturation doesn’t appear to be the issue there or TV timeouts for commercials. More pointedly, the NBA has been selling out its games, while NFL stadiums have matched the decline in TV ratings to the decline in filled seats for its contests.

This is a fan loyalty issue, not a television-habit change. Maybe the NFL should have shopped around more for a commissioner who could recognize the problem and address it effectively. Unless the league mends its relationship with the fans, players and owners alike will take a hard financial hit the next time the TV broadcast contracts come up for negotiation.