Although the National Football League’s TV ratings are up for the first time since 2015, neither the league nor its broadcast partners should be in the mood to spike the ball in celebration, especially since the season isn’t even half over.
So far this season, the average TV audience for a pro football game has jumped 3%, to 15.6 million, compared with a year ago, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing data from Nielsen.
Viewership numbers vary widely. For instance, CBS has posted a 7% increase while Fox has declined 2%. The audience for NBC’s Sunday Night Football is flat while ESPN’s Monday Night Football is down 4%.
During the football season, NFL programs dominate the Nielsen ratings, and this year is no exception. The NFL provides the owners of broadcast and cable networks — CBS, Comcast (NBC) and Walt Disney (ESPN) — with one of the few genres of programming that viewers watch live.
I don’t buy the notion pushed by some politicians, including President Donald Trump, that the controversy over player protests during the national anthem significantly hurt NFL viewership. In fact, as I have argued in previous posts, one of the main reasons viewers were fleeing the NFL was the poor quality of NFL play, which, as The Journal noted, has improved this year. According to the newspaper, teams are averaging a record high 24 points per game while the average margin of victory is about 10 points, the smallest since 1932. Moreover, eight games have gone into overtime so far this year, the most since the NFL began allowing the additional play in 1974.
New stars such as Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, the top three picks in the NFL draft, have generated increased fan interest even as their teams continue to struggle. Cleveland, which finished winless last season, now has two wins, two losses and a tie. The Giants have won one game and lost four while the Jets have a 2-3 record.
Having an undefeated team in a major media market like the Los Angeles Rams is certainly helpful. The Rams returned to Los Angeles in 2016 after spending a decade in St. Louis. The Chargers, who relocated to the LA area from San Diego in 2017, have three wins and two losses, trailing only the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears, who last made the playoffs in 2011, are off to a surprising 3-1 start. Last year, they finished 5-11. Ratings for Bears games, not surprisingly, are up 50%, according to The Washington Post.
While these positive developments are noteworthy, I am still not convinced that the NFL will be able to reverse last season’s 10% ratings decline, although my previous prediction that they may be worse this year might have oversold the situation. For one thing, linear TV viewing is declining overall as the ranks of cord-cutters grow, and even shows like the Super Bowl are seeing their audience declines.
Let’s not forget that the NFL has some serious long-term issues, including lingering concerns about the game’s link to neurological problems. Many parents who played tackle football as children, including me, won’t let their sons and daughters play the game. My son is happy to be playing in a much safer flag league.
More Info: forbes.com