In a season that has seen the NFL’s broadcast partners dogged by depressed ratings, last Sunday brought a welcome jolt. Fox’s second game of the afternoon — for most homes the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers — was the most watched of the season, drawing 28.9 million viewers. That evening, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” featuring the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, drew 22.5 million viewers, the most for any primetime football game this season.
That was enough to slow the bleeding, but not stop it. Ratings for week 10 games were still down an average 6% from one year ago. Considering that all other weeks this season saw percentage declines in the double digits, however, it was a moral victory — one that could become a winning streak in week 11, which begins tonight with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers on “Thursday Night Football.”
Broadcasters have been waiting for this moment. Of the prevailing theories about why NFL ratings have dropped, the most popular has been that the presidential election had stolen eyeballs that would otherwise be fixed on the game. Increased viewership for cable news networks at times that games were on supported that idea. The silver lining was an expectation that ratings would bounce back after the election. Week 10 was the first test of that theory — and the results were promising. If the “Thursday Night Football,” which pitted the Baltimore Ravens against the cellar-dwelling Cleveland Browns, were discounted, ratings for the week would have been up 18% from one year ago.
“This was a date that all of us had circled on our calendars for a long time,” said Fox Sports research chief Michael Mulvihill. “We’ve been saying very consistently that the election was a major factor, probably the biggest factor impacting NFL ratings through the first half of the year.”
It is not the only factor. Speaking at the New York Times’ Dealbook conference last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called this season’s ratings declines “cyclical,” then fingered one possible culprit: the length of games. “We want to take as much what we call dead time, non-action out of the game, so that we can make the game more exciting,” Goodell said. He added that the league is considering lowering ad loads and speeding up reviews in an attempt to shorten games.
“We are in a more challenging battle than ever to keep people’s attention for long periods of time,” Mulvihill said. “I think what we’re finding is that the sports that require a lesser commitment of time are doing pretty well.” He cited soccer and UFC as examples.
And those sports are not the only ones experiencing growth as the NFL — still the most watched of all the pro leagues — struggles to maintain the outsize ratings that have helped it land massive television contracts.
Major League Baseball has seen recent gains. The World Series featuring the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians drew more than 40 million viewers for game seven last month on Fox, the most for a World Series game since 1991.
That series was an outlier thanks to the Cubs’ successful run at making history — exceeding Fox’s projections. But baseball has surged elsewhere as well. Of the 25 U.S. MLB television markets, regional baseball coverage ranked No. 1 on cable in 24 of them during the regular season. In nine markets, local baseball coverage was No. 1 in against broadcast and cable.
“Live sports that are driven by local interests, that are more regionalized in natures, have really held up pretty well,” Mulvihill said, citing baseball and college football. Regionalized NFL packages, such as the Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS, have seen less severe declines than the Thursday, Sunday, and Monday-night packages have. Fox’s NFL coverage, which includes regional games, is down 2% from last year, compared to 17% for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” which broadcasts one game nationwide.
But even if ratings continue to rebound, NFL broadcasters still have a daunting hole to dig themselves out of. Their best hope may be the Cowboys, whose Fox game against the Steelers drove the week 10 resurgence. The team has a large national fan base, and its 8-1 run behind rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has emerged as the big story of the season. Their seven remaining games are spread among all four NFL broadcasters — one on CBS, one on ESPN, three on Fox, and two on NBC — making them universal benefactors.
If the Cowboys keep winning, interest in the team could rise above the media noise generated by the Donald Trump’s presidential transition, just as the Cubs were able to draw attention even in the final days of the election. But that is unlikely to be enough for the NFL to make a full comeback this season.
Mulvihill is hopeful that Fox can finish this season on par with last, but won’t commit to that outcome — particularly in an uncertain political environment in which an unexpected or inflammatory move by Trump could send viewers scurrying to cable news on Sundays. For his competitors, who are even deeper in the hole, he’s even less optimistic.
“When you’re 10 weeks into a 17-week season and you’re down double digits,” he said, “it’s very, very hard for those guys to get back to break even.