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What’s behind the NFL ratings drop? (+video)

Pro football continues to pull in the largest TV audiences, but some wonder whether ratings hiccups portend a long-term trend.

Sportscaster Bob Costas is on set before a 2016 NFL game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas.
Michael Ainsworth/AP | Caption
  • Erik Spanberg

National Football League playoffs take center stage in January. Pro football continues to pull in the largest TV audiences, but some wonder whether ratings hiccups portend a long-term trend.

Viewership was down by double digits for prime-time games through much of 2016. Among the reasons cited: the retirement of quarterback Peyton Manning, the absence of suspended quarterback Tom Brady during the first month of play, a nation diverted by the spectacle of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battling, and growing concerns over player safety.

“I think there were a lot of ingredients in the stew this year,” said Mike Tirico, former play-by-play voice of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” who is part of NBC’s NFL coverage. 

Mr. Tirico also mentioned a generational shift in marquee teams and players, which can lead to declines in interest until fans become familiar with the next rivalries and stars. And it’s only a recent occurrence for the NFL to schedule Thursday prime-time games through the entirety of the regular season, points out Tirico. That means prime-time games are played on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday. It’s unlikely that a 32-team league can come up with compelling matchups for most of those time slots.

Despite the concerns, analysts don’t see 2016 as a canary – or concussion – in the coal mine. By late in the season, ratings for all games (not just those during prime time) were off by 10 percent, according to ESPN, rebounding from a previous deficit of 14 percent through Election Day. And the resurgent Dallas Cowboys, who were featured in several December prime-time games, generated strong interest.

Translation: By Super Sunday, the NFL believes it will be close to its normal lofty TV perch. But the question will hang around till next season: Has the glut of pro football, plus concerns over player safety, dimmed its status as America’s most popular sport?