The National Football League’s television ratings have declined significantly this season. After four weeks, the NFL’s ratings are down 11 percent across FOX, CBS, NBC and ESPN. And the Thursday night game that kicked off Week Five experienced a 17 percent drop in viewership compared to the corresponding game last season.
The biggest hit is on prime time. On Sunday afternoon’s, the traditional NFL slot, the decline is only around 3 to 4 percent.
What accounts for the decline? Factors like too many games on television and concern over the impact of the game on players’ health don’t seem like good explanations for a sudden decline because. They are not new.
What is different this year? An NFL memo reportedly cites the presidential election, noting that there was a significant decline in viewership before the 2000 election.
But except for the Monday night telecast that conflicted with the Clinton-Trump debate, it’s difficult to understand why the election would affect the size of the TV audience for NFL games. Before blaming the election, moreover, one would need to see evidence of serious declines in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Finally, this year’s decline apparently is sharper than the one in 2000.
What else is different? There was the suspension of Tom Brady. But it’s difficult to believe that it has affected viewership to an appreciable degree. If anything, one can imagine more fans tuning in to Patriot games to see how the team would fare without its star quarterback (the Patriots fared brilliantly).
Another new development is the increased availability of NFL games on platforms other than television. Twitter live streamed its first game ever — a Thursday night contest in September. However, it seems to have attracted less than 2 percent of the number of viewers who watched on TV.
The other big difference is players refusing to respect America when the National Anthem is played. In its memo, the NFL reportedly denies that this is a factor. “In fact,” the memo asserted, “our own data shows that perception of the NFL and its players is actually up in 2016.”
I don’t know about that, but I’d be surprised if the protest indulged in by a few players per team is driving ratings down by more than a few points. I’m into boycotting sporting events for political reasons. For example, I don’t intend to watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year because of the decision to punish North Carolina for its policy on bathrooms. Same with the NBA all-star game and related events (slam dunk contest, etc.).
But the fact that a few poorly-informed knuckleheads won’t stand up for the playing of the Anthem doesn’t turn me against the League or the sport. The NFL made no decision except to allow the knuckleheads to exercise free expression — a good decision, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps other conservatives are viewing the matter less charitably.
The biggest factor behind the bad ratings may simply be bad games. The early season prime time match-ups are said to be lackluster and the ones I’ve seen fit that description.
Whatever the cause, the decline is good news if it signals to television networks and sports leagues that America isn’t addicted to their telecasts and that conservatives don’t want liberal politics mixed with sports. If the goose isn’t guaranteed to lay golden eggs, it may be a losing idea for outfits like the NCAA and the NBA to take sides in political controversies.