NFL ratings, long immune to the erosion that has diminished linear-television viewership, are down through the first quarter of the 2017 season, extending declines seen last year.
The average audience for all NFL regular-season telecasts declined 8% to 16.5 million viewers in 2016 from 17.9 million in 2015. Through the first quarter of the 2017 season, nine of the 26 NFL game windows were down when measured against the corresponding periods a year earlier, according to an analysis of Nielsen Holdings data by Sports Media Watch.
In 2016, the early-season declines were attributed to a number of factors: the absence of star power as legendary quarterback Peyton Manning retired and New England signal-caller Tom Brady served a four-game suspension; blowouts in key games; many viewers turning to NFL Network (US)'s NFL RedZone highlights channel instead of FOX (US) and CBS (US) on Sunday afternoons; younger fans more interested in following fantasy players than watching full game telecast; and notably, a historic 2016 election cycle that fueled ratings gains for cable news networks. Post-election, the NFL viewership decline lessened, giving league, TV network and advertising executives reason to hope that a ratings rebound might be in order in 2017.
Another viewing dynamic that cannot be ignored is the protests that began last season, with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem as a means to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. The controversial move drew sharp criticism from some NFL fans who view the stance as disrespectful.
While this was seen as a contributor to the decline in viewership during the 2016 campaign, the situation has heightened this year after President Donald Trump weighed in on the protest, suggesting NFL owners should sack players who did not stand up during the playing of the anthem. Amid a fierce social media and TV debate on the issue, some team owners chose to join their players in taking a knee on the field in support of their right to express their freedom of speech.
Subsequently, there were reports of longstanding season-ticket holders revoking their seat licenses. AT&T Inc.'s DIRECTV is offering refunds to some subscribers who want to cancel their subscriptions to the out-of-market Sunday Ticket package.
Presumably stoked by interest in Trump's comments, the league's Sunday afternoon carriers realized ratings' bumps for their pregame shows on Sept. 24. CBS' "The NFL Today" scored a 3.2 household rating, a 33% jump from the 2.4 in week 3 of the 2016 season, and its highest average since 2010. "FOX NFL Kickoff" delivered a 1.3 rating, 30% greater than the prior year, while "FOX NFL Sunday," which runs immediately prior to regional game telecasts, tallied a 9% gain to a 3.7 rating.
The protest issue is polarizing. A recent study by the Global Strategy Group conducted for ESPN (US) indicated that among respondents deemed avid NFL fans, 48% said the players' protests had no bearing on their interest in the league, while 31% said the protests decreased their affinity. The protests are raising the level of interest in watching the league for the remaining 19% within that group.
On the sponsor watch, defections have seemingly been minimal and local. Car dealerships in New Jersey and Denver pulled their ads from NFL games over players refusing to stand during the national anthem.
In New Jersey, Flemington Car and Truck Country punted on its ads running in NFL coverage in local cable, while Phil Long Ford is evidently still determining whether to a renew an endorsement relationship with Von Miller, after the Broncos linebacker knelt during the anthem on Sept. 24.
In the wake of Trump's tweets on the matter, national advertisers, including Nike, Hyundai, Ford, Under Armour and Anheuser-Busch InBev issued statements about the right to free speech and expression. Some of the brands also reiterated support of the flag and patriotism.
Decreases and Dallas
The Sports Media Watch scorecard shows the downturns have occurred during single-game and doubleheader windows for CBS and FOX on Sunday afternoons, as well as in prime time.
NBC (US)'s "Sunday Night Football," which has tied FOX's "American Idol" in leading prime-time audiences for a record six straight broadcast seasons, has sustained declines in four of the package's five windows to date compared to last season, including the season-opening kickoff match-up between the defending champion New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, ESPN (US) has experienced mixed results with "Monday Night Football." While there was a downturn for both games on its Sept. 11 opening doubleheader, the audience ticked up 2% the following week, before scoring 13.7 million viewers for Dallas-Arizona on Sept. 25, a 67% advance from the prior year's contest, which went up against the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton that tallied 84 million viewers. The audience for the most recent "MNF" telecast — Washington versus the last NFL team unbeaten this season, Kansas City, which was settled in the last few seconds — decreased.
There has been one constant when it comes to gains this season: The Dallas Cowboys, the squad many NFL fans love or loathe, has lifted the window relative to last season for each of its four games thus far.
Eric Shanks, president, COO and executive producer of Fox Sports, in an interview before the season kicked off was sanguine about the prospects for NFL ratings amelioration, as the network's 2017 schedule is highlighted by a number of games involving the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, which he called the NFL's two most popular brands.
Those teams square off in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 8. Their Jan. 15 Divisional playoff confrontation garnered 48.5 million viewers, the most ever for a Divisional or Wild Card playoff game.
Looking further ahead, there are a number of other key match-ups this season that could drive interest and ratings: an Oct. 22 Super Bowl LI rematch between New England and Atlanta on NBC's "SNF"; an Oct. 30 battle for AFC West supremacy matching Denver and Kansas on ESPN's "MNF"; Dallas-Atlanta on Nov. 12 on FOX; CBS' coverage of New England-Oakland on Nov. 19 from Mexico City; and New England-Pittsburgh on Dec. 17 on CBS.