By ROBERT TAUB
As recently as 2015, it was common for a regular season National Football League game to get over 20 million viewers.
According to sportsmediawatch.com, the lowest rated NFL game of the season was the Oct. 23 contest the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Giants played in London. The matchup drew just a 2.4 rating with an estimated 3.7 million viewers. Thirteen weeks into the season, some of the lowest ratings came in primetime including a 3.2 on Oct. 27 (Jacksonville-Tennessee), 3.6 on Nov. 3, (Atlanta-Tampa Bay) and a 3.5 on Nov. 10 (Cleveland-Baltimore).
Jeff Capellini, a columnist for WFAN.com/CBSNewYork, believes that the oversaturation of the sport is a detriment to the ratings.
“How many games do we need a week spread out over how many days?” Capellini asked. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the matchups were better, but let’s be honest, the games on Thursdays and in London are mostly brutal games that don’t pique the interest of the viewing public when there are so many other options to watch on TV, and that’s regardless of the NFL’s popularity.”
He said objections to how the NFL responded to domestic violence allegations against players and reactions to players who kneel during the playing of the national anthem as a protest gesture may be a factor in low ratings.
“The NFL has done themselves no favors with its handling of domestic violence,” Capellini said. “I’m not sure how big of impact it has made, but when you add domestic violence to politicizing the sport and the bad games on non-Sundays, you have a serious baseline for a decrease in viewership.”
Such factors have turned some people off to the NFL, Capellini said.
“I think Americans look at the NFL and sports in general as an escape,” he said. “They don’t want the bad news of the day spoiling their two to three hours a day of viewing. They want to forget about life’s troubles and have some enjoyment. “
The NFL has turned into a sounding board for agendas which Capellini says the average fan wants no part of.
“They simply don’t want their viewing experience infringed upon,” Capellini said.
A network source, who asked not to be identified, says the ratings drops definitely have been noticed.
“We don’t like it when the ratings are down,” he said. “We are in the business of drawing eyeballs and making advertisers happy.”
He added that the network he is affiliated with has only seen a 4 percent ratings drop from 2015, but that his network has been lucky despite that. “We’ve been able to weather the storm better than anybody because we have the benefit on Sundays of broadcasting five to seven games.”
The executive said research showed the presidential election played a huge part in the declining number of viewers watching football. The first presidential debate was held on Sept. 26 when there was a Monday Night Football matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. The game drew just a 4.8 rating with 8 million viewers, the lowest rated Monday night game of the season.
“This is not something new,” he said. “Sports and other programming as a whole see a lot less viewers tuning in. It’s absolutely the number one cause.”
Richard Deitsch, a sports media writer for Sports Illustrated, also said that the election had a significant impact on the number of viewers watching NFL games in primetime. “You have to presume of the NFL’s primetime viewers morphed over to election coverage,” he said.
On Oct. 9, the date of the second presidential debate, the New York Giants faced the Green Bay Packers. They drew a 9.0 rating and 16.6 million viewers, the second worst of any Sunday Night Football game aired all year.
Deitsch also said the drop in ratings stemmed from the low quality of games.
“The league has been hurt by a lack of star quarterbacks,” Deitsch said. “This league is very much star quarterback marketed league.”
Peyton Manning retired after last season and star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Tony Romo were out. That had an impact on the first few weeks of the year. “The only people who have impact on ratings are quarterbacks,” Deitsch said.
Then there is the grind of intense competition, the clashes that the NFL promotes so heavily in its advertising.
“Look at it this way, the NFL’s job is to make money,” he said. “You’re asking these guys to play too much football.”
Some other elements Deitsch said have an impact on ratings are officiating and fantasy football.
“I think officiating impacts how you do and how you don’t enjoy games. If an official is doing a bad job, you turn the game off,” Deitsch said. “Fantasy is a factor because it’s anecdotal. Two or three years ago it was hot, but now it has slowed down, which has impacted television viewership.”
The fantasy aspect plays to viewers whose favorite teams are out of a playoff hunt but who still tune in to other games to keep up with players on their fantasy teams.
The NFL was also going up against an exciting, seven-game World Series. J.A. Adande, the director of sports journalism at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a personality for ESPN, said that didn’t help the league since there are only so many hours in a day people when can be exposed to sports.
Adande said there were not enough compelling games early in the year which, along with lack of personalities, hurt the audience size.
“At a time when personality matters more than ever, the NFL is lacking,” Adande said. “The NFL needs to rethink the way it does things. Personalities shine through everything.”
Football continues to be heavily watched, but Adande says there is an oversaturation with so many games televised on different days and in different time zones. That does more harm than good.
“Monday Night Football for example used to be the premier game,” Adande said. “They [the NFL] have diminished that.”
Adande says that teams with a national following such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, and Green Bay Packers are relevant when it comes to certain markets around the country.
While the league has seen ratings bump as the final weeks of the season and the playoffs approach, the ratings drop could have an impact on decisions for future seasons.
“I think the NFL will try to look at the primetime schedule and to see how they can put out better games in the future,” said Deitsch. “The NFL could only do so much; there are so many outside factors.”
The NFL is exploring cutting down on commercial breaks, shortening the halftime break, streamlining play-review system as possible ways to hold viewers.
Adande said that ratings don’t call for panic, but that they won’t return to when they were at their peak.
“The NFL will remain a valuable product with all the storylines,” he said.