The 2016 NFL offseason chugs along. The next date to be excited for is February 15th, when teams can begin designating players for the franchise or transition tag. Though the process could take days or even weeks to play out, it will give us a better idea of which players might make it to free agency.
Throughout the offseason, I’m going to post a series of articles under the headline “Monday Musings.” As the title implies, these will come out each Monday for the duration of the 2017 offseason.
The articles will be meant to spark discussions on a range of NFL topics. Before we know it, free agency will be here, followed by the draft, and not long after we’ll be kicking off opening weekend in September. But we have to get there somehow.
For today’s discussion, the topic will center on the 2016 NFL TV ratings, which were lower than in years past.
Timeline of Events
This story starts unexpectedly. The NFL ratings for the preseason were actually quite good, especially the Week 3 matchup on August 25th between the Falcons and Dolphins, which aired on NBC.
That trend continued on August 26th and again on August 27th, this time on CBS.
Things would quickly change, however...
It started with the season debut on Thursday night, September 8, a Super Bowl L rematch between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers that hauled in 25.2 million viewers. This number represented a decline of 8% from 2015 and 6% from 2014.
The drop in viewers continued through opening weekend. Sunday Night Football experienced their worst night since 2009. Articles reporting the ratings and speculating reasons for the decline pointed to the league’s problems with domestic violence, Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protests, and Tom Brady’s 4-game suspension.
Ratings continued to drop the following week, and a September 23rd article in Forbes stated:
“It is starting to look like disrespecting the country during the national anthem is accomplishing what the concussions, domestic violence and deflategate could not do--drive down television ratings for the National Football League.
“Through two weeks of football the NFL's television ratings are down across the board. The drop in ratings and viewership is unprecedented in recent years and has occurred during the protest of the national anthem, started by San Francisco 49ers backup QB Colin Kaepernick. Just last year some opined that the league's ratings had no ceiling. That appears to be false.”
The ratings continued to spiral downward uncontrollably, with Forbes declaring on October 5th that they had confirmed the reason for the decline was the Kaepernick-led player protests during the National Anthem.
By Week 6, the ratings were hitting 5-year lows. Suddenly, other explanations started cropping up, such as the distraction of the election, the lack of “big-market superpowers,” and other unlikely explanations. A “Top Ten” list ranking the reasons for the ratings drop was published by Sports Illustrated, with many more potential explanations (citing the crackdown on celebrations, daily fantasy sports bans, and inconsistent officiating, among others).
Some even suggested that the declining NFL ratings indicated that the end of traditional TV was not far away.
With no idea how to turn things around, NFL owners were scrambling for answers.
In Week 9, the first weekend of November, ratings were down 20%. There seemed to be no end to the freefall.
The NFL appeared to be content to wait out the downturn and see if things would rebound naturally, continuously blaming the ratings problems on unprecedented interest in the election.
Somehow, that plan actually appeared to have worked. Week 10’s Sunday night game, the first day of games after the 2016 United States Presidential Election, saw an increase of 13% over 2015’s Sunday Night Football game. FOX also saw their best day of the season, a Sunday so big for FOX that, up to that point, it cut their ratings decline from the previous year in half.
However, some began to speculate that a particularly good slate of games was the reason for the ratings spike, wondering why college football ratings had remained steady throughout the season. The Chicago Tribune suggested that a series of poor match-ups throughout the season had contributed significantly to the declining ratings.
The Thanksgiving football ratings heavily supported this theory. The early games, close contests, first between the Lions and Vikings and later between the Cowboys and Redskins, saw an increase in ratings from 2015, a year when the earlier games were blowouts.
However, the Thursday Night Football blowout win for the Steelers over an Andrew Luck-less Colts was down big from the previous year, back when the Bears narrowly upset the Packers at Lambeau Field.
As the PFT article (linked above) put it:
“So when the early games were close and competitive, fans gathered around the television. When the late game was a blowout, fans opted to get some tryptophan-induced sleep or even — gasp! — turn off the TV and talk to their families.”
As debates raged on over how to fix the ratings, another blowout on Sunday Night Football meant another quiet night, adding further fuel to the idea that poor match-ups were the primary culprit.
Regarding a solution, the NFL's Senior Vice President of Media Revenue, Strategy and Development told Sporting News:
"My own personal view is that I think we have to think of this in two ways: What's out there in the next 12-to-24 months and what stuff is really hanging on the horizon five years out or more. There are going to be drastic changes."
In other words, the NFL is looking at how the future of television will impact their product. Personally, I think streaming via laptops and gaming consoles will continue to grow in popularity at exponential rates, and in the not-too-distant future, traditional television broadcasting will be no more... but I digress...
One comical consequence of the NFL ratings dip was that it forced TV networks to repay advertisers. According to Yahoo! Finance:
“Broadcasters like CBS and NBC saw sharp increases in audience deficiency units (ADUs), or ‘makegoods,’ which are payments they must make to advertisers when ads do not receive the promised volume of impressions.”
Following Week 14, it seemed that that the ratings problem was in the rearview mirror. As noted by ESPN’s Darren Rovell:
“For the first nine weeks, NFL games averaged 15.5 million viewers, which was down 14% compared to 2015. But following the Nov. 8 presidential election, which took place two days before the start of Week 10, viewership has increased. During Weeks 10-14, NFL games averaged 18.1 million viewers, off just 2% compared to those weeks in 2015.”
As playoff races continued to heat up near the end of the season, NFL ratings continued to climb closer to their 2015 counterparts.
Then, after suffering a “New Year’s Hangover” during Week 17, the NFL ratings for the first round of the playoffs were down about 7 percent from a year ago, likely a result of four blow-outs.
The following round of games, however, set records.
Most-Watched Divisional Playoff Game EVER: #GBvsDAL pic.twitter.com/hyY4thAmpt— FOX Sports PR (@FOXSportsPR) January 16, 2017
Although Super Bowl LI was down slightly, from 111.9 million last year to 111.3 million this year, it became the fourth most-watched TV event of all time. Fox drew a 48.8 overnight rating for the first Super Bowl to ever go to overtime, compared to last year's 49.0 overnight in Super Bowl 50.
Titans TV Ratings
After an SBNation article made fun of the Titans-Jags Thursday Night Football match-up in the midst of the nosediving ratings, the game was actually the most-watched television event of the evening.
The Titans match-up with San Diego rated higher than Game 7 of the World Series, which occurred a few days prior to the Week 9 game.
If you ask me, I think there were a multitude of factors that played into the decline in the NFL’s ratings.
Naturally, the election was a factor, but I think there was more at play. The decline in television viewership this season (-13.4%) was the biggest dip of all election years.
I think another big reason was a lack of good match-ups. The Bears played 4 of their first 8 games on primetime television. The playoff games were famously nearly all blowouts. CBS called them the worst playoffs in NFL history. I think some of this was coincidence and bad luck. If Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, and even Ryan Tannehill had been AFC playoff quarterbacks instead of Brock Osweiler, Matt McGloin, and Matt Moore, a few of those games may have been more exciting.
However, some of it is a failure by the NFL and their Networks to schedule good games for primetime. PFT proposed an idea to make each Sunday Night Football game flexible, instead of just the Week 17 game.
Will the ratings return to normal in 2017? Peter Kafka of Recode (who?) does not think so, but what does he know?
What do you think are the major reasons for the drop in the NFL ratings?