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NFL Ratings Are Still Slipping, but Not as Much as They Used to

A little loss can be something to celebrate.

Through the first three weeks of the 2018 regular season, NFL game telecasts are down an average 2% in total viewers from where they were at the same point in 2017, according to Nielsen data. That’s a significant improvement from the previous two seasons, when three weeks in, viewership declines were in the 8%-10% range.

When NFL ratings took a sharp downturn in 2016, TV sports execs blamed the media frenzy of the presidential election for drawing eyeballs away from football. But when ratings continued to creep downward in 2017, it became clear that other, stickier factors were at work. The leveling off that appears to be taking place now is a welcome sign for the NFL’s broadcast partners, who have seen rights fees continue to climb even as viewership heads in the opposite direction.

“The pressure is immense,” says Windy Dees, a sports-administration professor at the University of Miami. “I think that’s why they’re all nervous right now, because the networks are all starting to see that maybe they paid too much and maybe they can’t get the return on that they used to.”

In January, Fox agreed to pay the NFL $3.3 billion over five years for the broadcast rights to “Thursday Night Football.” It got its first official return on that investment Sept. 27, when the Los Angeles Rams’ 38-31 victory over the Minnesota Vikings drew 14.5 million viewers — nearly even with last year’s “Thursday Night Football” premiere on CBS, which drew 14.6 million.

It was a solid start to an important property for Fox, as the company prepares to offload the bulk of its entertainment business to The Walt Disney Co. and shift to a programming strategy heavily reliant on news and sports. But it was just a start.

“What we’ve said from the beginning, the two big goals from this season: One was to keep Sunday at 4:25 p.m. No. 1,” says Fox Sports research chief Michael Mulvihill, referring to the Sunday-afternoon NFL matchup on Fox that has for nine seasons running been the most watched program on television. “The other was to grow Thursday night. If we do those two things, we’re gonna be really satisfied with our season.”

As for what form he expects that improvement to take, he adds, “I don’t want to put a number to what that growth might be. I don’t even really have a specific expectation in terms of the growth. I just want to see it trend positively.”

Thursday night’s Vikings-Rams matchup was the first game of the still-young NFL season’s fourth week. Though full ratings for Week 4 were not available at press time, Week 3 ratings held to the trend of a slight dip from the previous season, one in which there had before been significant falloff — this year is down 3% year over year versus a 13% decline last season.

What is slowing the descent is still being argued over. Although some critics, including President Donald Trump, have attempted to link ratings losses to on-field player protests against racial inequality, sports-TV executives initially rejected the notion. But CBS Sports president Sean McManus last year told reporters that coverage of the protests was “one of the factors that I think perhaps led to the slight decrease in ratings last year.”

Now, TV sports executives are expressing hope that reaction to the protests has become baked in, and that most viewers who would decide not to watch games in part because of that issue have already stopped watching. Other factors, however, such as overexposure driven by the addition of “Thursday Night Football” to the league’s broadcast lineup, are still in play. But
the gap between live ratings for NFL football and faster-falling entertainment programming continues to widen every season.

Meanwhile, some argue that the protests are a red herring. “The politics are far less of a factor in the ratings decline than player safety and recent rule changes,” says Dees, who also remains skeptical of a ratings recovery.

“My initial reaction when I looked at the numbers was that’s probably novelty effect,” says Dees. “It’s the beginning of the season, and people are excited to have football to watch when they haven’t had it all summer. I think it’s more telling when we get to the middle of the season. Overall, I believe there is still reason for them to be concerned, because there has never been a stretch this long where they have continued to experience decline.”

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