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Will NFL Ratings Continue to Lose Ground?

September 6th, 2017   ||    by Todd Wasserman

One of the stunning surprises of last year’s NFL season happened off the field—as NFL ratings plummeted. For some, it was a sign that one of the last bastions of linear TV had succumbed to the pressures of cord-cutting and video-on-demand. But as the new season dawns, others are wondering whether last year’s ratings were an aberration or if this year’s ratings will be worse, signaling a longer-term decline.

Not Exactly a Touchdown

In the 2016–2017 season, NFL ratings fell 9 percent during the regular season and 6 percent in the playoffs, according to Recode. As The Denver Post notes, it was the first time since the 1990s that the NFL’s dominance in televised sports slipped. In particular, ratings for Monday Night Football fell 20 percent. In response, the league considered cutting the length of telecasts and trimming some ads, according to The New York Times.

The ratings slump seemed significant to many. The NFL’s ratings had risen 27 percent over the previous decade, even as overall prime time TV ratings fell 36 percent. Like other live events, including awards shows, NFL ratings have seemed to defy industry currents—like on-demand viewing and competition from the likes of Netflix and Hulu—that were otherwise hurting ratings for scripted shows.

Some argued that the NFL’s ratings decline had less to do with the overall market than specific events related to that particular season. During September, October, and the early part of November, for instance, the country was engrossed by an extremely contentious presidential election, which included three live debates.

The absence of NFL stars like Tom Brady, Tony Romo, and Peyton Manning for a portion of the season may also have been a contributing factor. And yet another factor was the World Series, which featured perennial losers, the Chicago Cubs, in a starring role.

What to Expect at Kickoff

With the 2017–2018 season about to start, a Variety survey shows many media executives think last season’s slump was no fluke. In general, media buyers surveyed predicted this season’s ratings would be worse than last season’s.

For its part, however, NBC Sports said it expects NFL games to be the No. 1 and 2 prime time shows on TV during the season. As Variety notes, NFL games are likely to make up five of the 13 top broadcast programs in terms of commercial views.

If ratings continue to decline, it will demonstrate the relative nature of broadcast viewership, because even when ratings are declining overall, programs that are declining slower are still attractive. A bigger concern for network execs is that when the NFL’s contracts run out in 2021 and 2022, other players like Amazon may step in to get a piece of the action, bidding up prices further even in the face of ratings decline.

But as the NFL ratings also show, it’s harder to get millions of people to tune into anything, so even if there are fewer viewers than the year before, large viewership numbers are still a notable feat—and there’s value there for advertisers targeting a particular audience. What’s needed from advertisers now—more than ever—is attention to return on ad spend and a keen eye for data.

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