Here’s How the NFL Plans to Bounce Back From Last Year’s Ratings Drop

Serving a TV audience that's more fragmented than ever

The league's broadcast TV partners still can draw 20 million to 30 million viewers on any given Sunday. Getty Images
Headshot of A.J. Katz

With two-and-a-half weeks until the start of the 2017 National Football League season, is everyone really ready for some football? The answer could prove more complex than catching an Eli Manning spiral.

Fox and CBS—which hold the rights to the Sunday afternoon games—saw single-digit audience declines from the 2015 to 2016 season. ESPN’s Monday Night Football and NBC’s Sunday Night Football were down double digits.

One cause for last year’s ratings drop was significant interest in the presidential race, which drew attention away from football. (The year-over-year ratings gap did close a bit after the election.) Then there’s the ongoing negative publicity surrounding concussions and player protests.

“The news hasn’t let up, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in Q4,” observed media consultant Brad Adgate. “There could be some unending news event that could play a great unknown. News and sports are very similar in that they’re live and can create appointment viewing that you may not foresee.”

“We’ll see if it was a ratings blip,” said Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, who considers the NFL “one of the strongest, most impenetrable brands on earth.”

“Don’t worry; Sunday and Thursday will still be in the top five for this year,” she added.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about ratings for the 2017 season, which kicks off Thursday, Sept. 7 on NBC.

Nielsen shared some early data from its new Out-of-Home reporting service, which showed that viewership from bars, gyms, hotels and workplaces can increase the in-home audience for sports and news events by nearly 20 percent. ESPN and Fox Sports, two NFL TV partners who have opted into the service, could see solid ratings bumps to their NFL broadcasts from that data. ABC opted into the service this past Wednesday, and other networks could follow soon.

Another good ratings omen: The Dallas Cowboys, traditionally the league’s best TV draw, will open the new season with three games in highly rated broadcast windows.

“We have several clients involved in the NFL, and while there is a healthy amount of concern right now, there’s still a tremendous amount of optimism,” said Michelle Palmer, The Marketing Arm’s president of sports and experiential. “The NFL remains the most-watched programming in the U.S. Yes, ratings are down, but the brand still attracts a very large and attractive audience, and that can’t be overlooked.”

During a recent call with investors, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said he believes CBS and the NFL will continue to be successful together in the years to come.

“The NFL has always stated there’s a reason the Super Bowl is always on network television,” noted Moonves. “It’s just higher rated, nobody has the reach that we do. There’s no question digital players will become more important, but we think they will go along with broadcast, not alone.”

The entry of Amazon into the NFL media fray could play a significant role in the league’s TV ratings for 2017 and beyond. Younger viewers, in particular, are increasingly turning to streaming over linear.

The league sold the rights to its 2017 streaming package to Amazon for $50 million, and will offer all 10 Thursday Night Football games, as well as a Christmas Day game, to Amazon Prime paid subscribers around the world, of which there are more than 80 million, according to a report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Amazon won’t receive exclusive streaming rights for the games. CBS and NBC can also have the ability to stream the Thursday games they broadcast.

While certain teams and matchups will always have an impact on TV ratings, the streaming portion of the equation, as well as the continued growth in popularity among non-Nielsen-rated NFL media properties like NFL RedZone, could continue to put a dent into Nielsen ratings, particularly among younger demographics.

The league’s broadcast TV partners still have the ability to draw 20-30 million viewers over a three-hour span on any given Sunday, and ESPN continues to win Monday nights on a regular basis. Meanwhile, NBC Sunday Night Football has been prime time’s No. 1 show for six straight years. That’s an impressive accomplishment in an era of extraordinary fragmentation.

“The fragmentation that’s taking place right now across all of TV is significant, and the NFL is not immune from that as much as it used to be,” said Adgate. “That said, the TV ad marketplace has been strong, and there’s still nothing on television like the NFL.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ajkatztv aj.katz@adweek.com A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.