Why Have NFL Ratings Declined?

It’s little over a week since the end of what many are calling it the greatest Super Bowl. Despite the game breaking many long standing records, including becoming the first Super Bowl to go to overtime, it failed to break the TV ratings record, despite an extra half of football.

Super Bowl LI was watched by 113.7 million viewers, with a notable 1.7 million streaming the game in the US, making it the second most watch Super Bowl in history. Yet for broadcaster Fox, it earned an estimated $20 million more thanks to overtime. 2015’s big game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots holds the record for ratings with over 114 million people tuning in.

Undoubtedly having over 113 million viewers for one game is nothing to be sniffed at, more worryingly for the NFL, during the regular season (of 16 games), viewer figures declined by 8%, according to ESPN. In real terms, this means that 1.4 million less people in the US watched each game during the season, which spans from September to January (with the Super Bowl running up into February). Even playoff games, which tend to drive larger audiences, given their perceived importance over regular season games, saw a 6% decline too.

Is this just a one season blip, especially considering how dramatic the Super Bowl was?

Given that advertisers are paying $5 million for a thirty second TV ad slot during the biggest game in the NFL’s calendar and that broadcasters give over $7 billion a year to the NFL for TV rights, a lot of money is at stake if audiences go missing, permanently.

Key Takeaways From The NFL’s Shock Rating Drop

  • Primetime .vs. Gameday: Much like in Europe, broadcasters pay a premium for ‘primetime’ games, like Sky does for ‘Super Sunday’ games featuring the top teams. Viewership figures plummeted for these type of games during last season in the NFL, down between 12% and 10%. Meanwhile, ‘gameday’ games, much like normal Saturday soccer fixtures, maintained a healthy enough rating. One guess from me is that, much like people have gotten used to choice when it comes to TV, they also like choice when it comes to NFL games now. For example, the NFL now has a channel just devoted to touchdowns, during game days, called NFL Redzone.
  • Did Politics Play A Part? Some in the media have attributed the tumbling ratings to the rancorous 2016 Presidential Election and pointed to previous dips in NFL ratings, during election years, including  such as 2000’s Bush vs. Gore (a 10% drop) and 1996’s Clinton vs. Dole (a 6% drop). I’m not convinced on this one.
  • It’s Not All Bad: Despite the doom and gloom over ratings in the NFL this season, the playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys drew a new record of over 48 million viewers, for a Divisional Round game. This serves to highlight how games with huge historical background, between storied franchises, like the Packers and Cowboys have, can really still capture the attention of the American public.

What happens next with NFL ratings is anyone’s guess. If next season continues on the downward trend of ratings, the NFL and broadcasters will have much to worry about. The NFL has dipped its toe into online streaming with Twitter this year (Twitter showed 10 regular season games) and may see this as the future for the league to remain ‘America’s Game’.

With so much money at stake, it is in the NFL’s and the networks’ interests to find a solution fast.

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