NFL ratings have tanked and they're not coming back

The pandemic has been taking a toll on everyone this year and it turns out that professional football isn’t exempt from this effect. Fewer people are tuning in for the games this season than we’ve seen in a long time. This isn’t just bad news for the league, of course, though it definitely eats into their revenue. The networks that carry the games are having to adjust their advertising prices downward to make up for the advertisers’ anticipated numbers. In some cases, they’re just giving away advertising slots in lieu of other compensation. And despite most of the games having been played, the audience levels still aren’t showing any signs of rebounding with only a few weeks left in the regular season. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)

TV networks are feeling the strains of disappointing NFL ratings, as they are forced to restructure deals with advertisers to make up for the smaller audience, and their opportunity to make money off remaining games during the lucrative holiday season narrows.

NBC made the unusual move of lowering the price it charged advertisers that already had committed to run in a Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers game planned for Thanksgiving night after a Covid-19 outbreak on the Ravens forced the game’s postponement to the following Wednesday.

Some networks also have considered letting advertisers pay less for commercials during NFL games and other programming than they originally pledged.

I’m honestly having a hard time wrapping my head around this. The NFL traditionally pulls fairly strong ratings and advertising slots are sold at a premium. What’s more, the pandemic has a lot more people staying home and you’d think that they would be looking for fresh entertainment options wherever they can find them. Heck, I’m still watching all of the New York Jets’ games and they’re in the process of proving that they probably couldn’t beat a halfway decent high school varsity team. (The Jets are 0-13 in case you hadn’t heard.)

On top of that, most of the stadiums are still either empty of fans or limited to drastically reduced seating capacity to allow for social distancing. If anything, there should be literally hundreds of thousands of more people having to stay home and watch the games on television because they can’t go see them live. Shouldn’t the ratings actually be higher this year instead of lower?

So what’s driving people away? That’s tough to say, really. I have no doubt that the league lost some of its audience after they allowed their sport to become so overtly politicized both on and off the field. But that’s been going on at a brisk clip ever since Colin Kaepernick started all of his drama. The ratings were down a bit over the last few seasons, but not nearly this much.

I briefly considered the possibility that there was more competition from other entertainment venues eating into football’s share of the market, but that really doesn’t make much sense either. A lot of shows either canceled or postponed their seasons because of COVID restrictions on filming. This is particularly true of the programs like game shows that traditionally rely on a live studio audience as part of their appeal. And let’s face it, there are only so many things you can binge-watch on Netflix and HBO Now before you start going stir crazy.

The WSJ article suggests that at least part of the slump is being caused by games that were postponed due to COVID outbreaks being pushed to less desirable days and time slots. I suppose that’s one factor, but there really haven’t been all that many of them pushed back. (Losing one of the Thanksgiving games was probably a huge hit in the pocketbook, however.)

In the end, I’m not coming up with anything really definitive to point to. After we see what the ratings look like for the post-season and the Super Bowl, we may know a bit more. But if this continues next fall after we’ve theoretically reached herd immunity via the new vaccines, professional football may turn out to be in a long-term state of decline, and that would be really sad. If it’s any consolation to the rest of you, the league is making at least one magnanimous gesture. They won’t be asking for head-of-the-line privileges in terms of getting the vaccine.