Coming off the 2015 football season, which held a record high for ratings, the 2016 season’s ratings have dropped more than 11 percent. The NFL speculates that the presidential election is to blame by taking up primetime television. While the election is a significant factor, there are many other reasons speculated to have caused the drop in ratings.
Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications, a sports consulting company, said, “Despite the decline in NFL ratings, it is still the No. 1 entertainment property in all of television.”
“More people watch the NFL on any given week than any other property, any other entertainment program, or any other television programming in our culture. While the ratings are down, the proportional impact of the NFL hasn’t changed that much because all ratings are down. In fact, the NFL ratings are probably down less than most entertainment properties,” Pilson added.
After last season, if the NFL’s ratings go anywhere but up, it may be cause for concern. Overall, NFL ratings were down 11 percent, but ESPN’s Monday Night Football plummeted by 21 percent in the first month of this season.
This decline in ratings has been talked about enough that top NFL executives have sent a memo to the 32 NFL teams stating the problem and explaining that the presidential election is the underlying cause. Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz, two league executives, also mentioned that they are unconcerned about the long-term effects of this season on the future of the NFL.
“While our partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings, they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue,” they said.
Many fans are blaming players like 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests have incited an emotional backlash. Kaepernick chose to sit or kneel during the National Anthem in a silent protest for Black Lives Matter. Many fans took to boycotting the games, trending the tag #boycottNFL. A survey done by Rasmussen Reports revealed that almost a third of the 1000 Americans surveyed said they were less likely to watch the games because of the protests. Fifty-two percent said that the protests did not impact their decisions to watch games.
While fans argue that this is the reason for the falling ratings, Pilson said, “That one I can discount. That’s not what makes people decide what to do or what to watch. Nor do parents make a viewing decision for themselves and their kids based on how the NFL settles its own lawsuits.”
Given Peyton Manning’s retirement, Tom Brady’s four week “Deflategate” suspension and many big name players on the sidelines with injuries, fans are not tuning in to watch “no name” players. Despite players like Dak Prescott, quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys who has shaken up the game, it’s not enough for some fans and viewers to watch the games.
Since games are now being aired at more times than ever, audiences and markets could have become fragmented, according to sports analysts.
Neil Macker, entertainment analyst for Morningstar, said, “Sports at the end of the day is a narrative. You can’t create it. It’s organic. If you don’t have those compelling storylines, people aren’t going to take the time to watch.”
The Washington Post reports that more Americans than ever, especially millennials, are abandoning traditional TV in favor of on-demand services like Netflix and Hulu. The time that Americans spend watching traditional TV has also dropped roughly 11 percent since 2010, according to Neilsen data. More specifically, the time that those younger than 24 spend watching has plunged by more than 40 percent. Since on-demand services are becoming the new standard in entertainment, the allure of live broadcasts has diminished, sending networks into a tailspin. Football’s traditional audience is getting smaller season by season, and the newest potential fans have not been wooed by live broadcast coverage.
The 2016 presidential election may be a huge factor in the ratings drop for the NFL. Although elections do tend to thin the audiences for sports, the drop recorded this year is an all-time high. During the 2000 election, NFL ratings dropped 10 percent and in the 2008 election by two percent. In comparison to last year, ratings this year have dropped 15 percent.
Rolapp and Katz said, “All networks airing NFL games are down… primetime windows have clearly been affected the most.”
In a news conference held by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Goodell said, “I don’t think there’s a single reason for it. We look at all those factors. Everyone has theories…There are a lot of factors to be considered. We don’t make excuses. We try to look at what’s causing it and make changes.”