The ratings were released today for ESPN’s Monday Night Football and they were the second lowest ratings for a season and would have been the lowest if not for the huge rating turned in by the Dallas Cowboys-Detroit Lions contest this past week.
The problem facing the ratings for MNF is part of a broader trend facing all NFL broadcasts this season, as a ratings decline was felt across all their broadcast packages. The ratings slump was seen by some as being connected to the presidential election, but even after that was decided in early November, the ratings have not rebounded to expected levels.
This past week, with the long Christmas/Chanukah holiday weekend the NFL lead the ratings for their main telecasts: Thursday Night Football (Eagles vs. Giants), Sunday Night Football, and Monday Night Football.
The ESPN Monday night package had been down in recent years because the matchups were generally not as compelling as the games featured in other NFL packages. The other theory being that with the addition of more Thursday night NFL games on network channels with CBS and NBC splitting those telecasts, that the average as well as the hard core NFL fan was becoming disinterested by the time Monday night rolled around.
The broadcast of NFL games, prior to this season, held the sentiment within the media and advertising industries as the “final frontier” for programming which remained immune to drops in ratings or viewership. This season though dispelled that theory as each segment of the NFL broadcasting tiered structure, from the regionalized coverage on Sunday afternoons to the primetime broadcasts, all experienced a downturn in ratings.
The before-mentioned Presidential election had some effect on the NFL ratings because the cable and network news programs on Sunday nights saw a marked increase in ratings. The NFL numbers rebounded somewhat after the election, but still were softer overall than in recent years.
I have written previously about a potential oversaturation point for the NFL with televised games and I think the 2016 season is evidence that the threshold has been reached. The final weeks of the season were also fairly devoid of drama surrounding the field of playoff teams, with the AFC side decided except for seeding a couple of teams, and the NFC side basically set except for the NFC North.
The matchup to decide the NFC North title between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers served as the season finale to Sunday Night Football on NBC and it finished with a 13.7 rating. That served as an increase from the Christmas night game on NBC between Kansas City and Denver which finished with an 11.2 rating.
The NFL, for its part in this situation, has repeatedly stated that they are looking into the ratings downturn and evaluating strategies to increase viewers moving forward. They also remain committed to Thursday and Monday night games despite the decline in ratings this season for both of those programming entities.
The players, notably Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks among others, have been vocal in their disdain for Thursday night games which create short weeks for both teams, especially the visiting team that must also travel to the game site. The discussion is now shifting toward improved scheduling of Thursday night games such as positioning it following a bye week for the teams involved, or scheduling more divisional matchups with shorter travel distances for the visiting team.
I had also written previously about the National Anthem protests by NFL players and whether that had an impact on the ratings slump for the NFL. The issue undoubtedly drew people away from watching certain primetime games (especially those featuring the San Francisco 49ers which were at the center of the issue) and I know people personally who refused to watch certain NFL games because of those protests.
However, the Denver Post conducted a survey about the NFL ratings slump and only 25% of the respondents felt that the National Anthem protests were the core issue as to why they were changing the channel from the NFL production. It should be noted that this survey was unscientific but it had some revealing results which demonstrated that the number of penalties, overall quality of play, and the off-field issues for players (domestic violence, drugs, guns etc.) were the top reasons for the decline in viewers.
First, the number of penalties in these games is bordering on being out of hand. The league office has to get together with the officiating crews during the offseason and discuss some ways to cut down on penalties, especially during primetime games. There were points in this season where my schedule allowed me to watch more Monday night games than anything else, and the number of penalties and stoppages for challenged rulings on catches or some other issue made the games very difficult to watch at points. I am a huge fan of the NFL and watch more out of market games for that sport than any other, so if I am frustrated with that, it has to effect the average viewer.
Second, the overall quality of play is a huge issue here with ratings and they are connected very closely to the decline this season. Many of the Thursday and some of the NBC games on Sunday in primetime as well as the Monday night edition on ESPN had scores that were so lopsided that the viewers bailed well before the end of the game. The retirement of Peyton Manning and some less attractive matchups in some of the primetime packages drove this rationale further in the impact on ratings.
Next, the off-field issues for the players is a definite concern for the league, to which there is no easy way to mitigate because of the way information is transmitted today via social media and the internet. The media coverage of a variety of off-field matters from domestic violence charges, weapons charges, and other infractions such as drug or PED use is a definite setback to the image of the league. The league has talked about transparency, so it is not like they can keep these matters out of the public domain, so it will remain an issue for the NFL moving forward.
Finally, the topic of oversaturation was discussed in multiple media reports (SI.com produced a great piece about the ratings slump) and the before-mentioned Denver Post survey noted that only 29% of viewers watched all three days of NFL football (Thursday, Sunday, and Monday). That translates into a situation where you have oversaturation of product in the airwaves.
The combination of factors driving the decline also translates into a situation where the solution is not easily obtained. It should be interesting to see how the NFL responds to the ratings data from this season and whether they can reverse this trend, stay tuned.
The NFL seems bullish on not eliminating any of these package tiers so they are going to have to work around this reality that, until they address some of these other issues, the ratings are going to remain hovering around the levels they were this season. The NFL is getting a dose of the fact that reality is sometimes a very difficult concept to accept.