NFL plots a cure for sagging ratings, empty seats

We’re quickly approaching New Years, which is traditionally a time for reflection on the events of the past year and plans for how to do better over the next twelve months. That’s particularly true for the NFL, which has seen both its television ratings and live attendance in many stadiums plunge precipitously in 2017. As the Washington Times reports this week, the leadership in the league is busy analyzing precisely what caused all of this and how they might address it in 2018.

Your first guess might logically be that the National Anthem protests were a big driving factor. That was definitely part of it, but media analysts and league insiders are also seeing a number of other disturbing trends affecting their bottom line, many of which were entirely of their own making.

The NFL is approaching the playoffs looking for a ratings turnaround after a year of record-low television numbers.

Outcry over players protesting by taking a knee during the national anthem isn’t helping, but it’s only one of several reasons fans are turning away from professional football, media analysts say.

Injuries to marquee players such as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, teams with losing records in the nation’s largest media markets such as New York and Chicago, a glut of prime-time games, and viewers with other options have also taken a toll.

“I’d be stunned if any single factor contributed more than 2 percent to the ratings decline,” said Andrew Billings, director of the University of Alabama’s Sports Communication program.

So how bad were the numbers overall? In week 15, average television viewership was down 9 percent from the same point in 2016. Week 14 was similarly off. That translates into an average loss of 1.6 million viewers for each televised game overall. And it’s been an ongoing problem rather than a case of a single week here or there when the nation was otherwise distracted.

Some of the drivers of this were, to be fair, beyond the control of the league. Two of their biggest markets are New York and Dallas, and if you’ve been following the fortunes of the Giants, the Jets and the Cowboys you can see how people might be less excited to tune in. Ratings for the Cowboys and Giants games are down by 7% while viewership for New York Jets games is off by, er… 37%. Doesn’t that seem a bit unfair? True, my Jets are stinking up the joint at 5-10 going into the final week, but the Giants have only won two games! C’mon, man.

The league couldn’t predict or correct for the implosion of those popular teams in large media markets, but other factors were definitely under their control. The obvious target of criticism is the anthem protests which the league could have shut down as soon as Kaepernick started all of this. They didn’t do that and they’ve paid the price. If a combination of new rules from the top and a tougher line from the owners can eliminate that problem over the offseason they may begin to recover next fall.

But the other big driver seems to have been market saturation. The NFL Network has simply gotten too greedy, trying to have football on for half the days of the week. (That’s in addition to locking off certain games so they are only available on their own cable network, which not everyone has or wants.) We’re up to four different game slots on Sundays when there’s a game in London (another colossally bad idea), with prime time games on both Monday and Thursday, in addition to Sunday night. No matter how big of a fan you may be, there’s such a thing as too much football. Fans primarily want to watch their own team, and if they’re not playing they’ll watch one or two other games. But now the market is drowning in games and fewer people are making the time to watch.

On the bright side, all of these things sound fixable… except for the Jets fielding a winning team, apparently. Now that Roger Goodell has somehow landed himself another plush, five-year contract, will he make the needed course corrections and turn this around? Money is what makes the league go ’round, so I’m holding out hope that he will.

David Strom 10:01 PM on September 26, 2022
David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022