Even though NFL games remained the most popular shows on television, ratings plummeted for the first half of the season before rebounding somewhat over the final two months. Average viewership per game fell 8% overall. Ratings for Monday night games on ESPN and Thursday night games on the NFL Network dropped 12% and 14%, respectively. NBC Sunday Night Football’s audience dropped 10%.
By Michael Bennett
The National Football League had an offseason from hell.
In 2016, the NFL’s aura of invincibility cracked.
Television audiences declined and empty seats dotted stadiums as the league confronted problems including increased media competition, continuing questions about player safety, and controversial player protests during the national anthem.
The league sought advice from its media partners to design a season they hope will start strong and gain momentum. The schedule is packed with attractive games in prime-time slots, especially in September and October, to get fans hooked early.
The league and its television partners also moved forward with a plan to cut the number of commercial breaks and made several other moves to improve the flow of the game. The networks shuffled announcers in search of voices that would appeal to younger fans. On the field, penalties for innocuous touchdown celebrations—moments tailor-made for viral videos—were done away with.
“This was very detailed, very thorough, and very sincere,” Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president for scheduling and programming, told the Wall Street Journal.
Network chiefs are as anxious as their league counterparts. NBC Sports president Mark Lazarus, who hopes to use the NFL as a launching pad for the Winter Olympics in February, said it was important that ratings bounce back this year.
“Every Sunday night I am up all night waiting to see what our numbers are,” he said. “We get our report card every Monday morning and I want high marks.”
Designing a more appealing schedule is a key part of the fix. Brian Rolapp, chief media and business officer for the NFL, said the league tries to heed its media partners’ wishes every year, though it’s difficult to give each network all the matchups it wants.
“I enter every season optimistic but a lot depends on what happens on the field,” Rolapp said.
For 2017, Magnus said ESPN demanded more support for Monday Night Football, once the league’s premier showcase. The network pushed for more divisional and intra-conference games aiming “to return Monday Football to the position where we think it should be.”
The league had little choice but to grant many of those wishes this season, not just because ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion a year on average for the Monday night games. Even though NFL games remained the most popular shows on television, ratings plummeted for the first half of the season before rebounding somewhat over the final two months. Average viewership per game fell 8% overall. Ratings for Monday night games on ESPN and Thursday night games on the NFL Network dropped 12% and 14%, respectively. NBC Sunday Night Football’s audience dropped 10%.
The NFL has a $27.9 billion deal with CBS, Fox and NBC, which runs through 2022. However, its $450 million deal with the NBC and CBS for its slate of Thursday night games, which can also be seen on the NFL Network, ends after this season, providing additional urgency for a rebound. A one-year pact with Amazon to stream Thursday night games also expires after this year.
This season kicks off tonight with a match-up between the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, a division champ last year. Five of New England’s games are scheduled for prime-time slots, including a week seven Super Bowl rematch with the Falcons on a Sunday night.
The Dallas Cowboys are in prime slots five times, including a first-week showdown with the New York Giants. The Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers, who met in the last season’s NFC Championship game, face off in week two. ESPN’s Monday Night Football matchups in September feature the Cowboys, Denver Broncos and New York Giants.
Meanwhile, the perennially awful Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t slotted in prime time at all. Other bad teams from last season, including the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, appear just once.
To keep things moving during broadcasts, the NFL has standardized halftime at 13 minutes, 30 seconds, rather than allowing it to fluctuate in certain games and stadiums; introduced a 40-second play clock after a touchdown and prior to extra point; and centralized replay review in New York City. Networks can use what is known as “double-box advertising,” allowing fans to watch the field during a commercial.
The NFL can’t manage away all of its challenges. The league and the networks blamed much 2016’s audience decline on the oxygen-sucking presidential election. While the election may be long over, President Donald Trump continues to dominate national attention.
Michael Nathanson, a media analyst, said “the expectations that the news cycle post-election would dissipate clearly has not yet come to fruition.”
Using a regression analysis that accounts for the rankings of each team and other metrics, Nathanson projects the league’s prime-time audiences will grow. “But if the prime-time schedule is strong, the Sunday afternoon numbers could be a little soft,” he said.
The league’s dicier problems also have not abated.
The controversy over quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice sparked boycotts, has lingered, if not grown. Kaepernick is currently unsigned and groups of players in multiple NFL cities knelt during the anthem in the weeks following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
This summer, days after the league’s billion-dollar concussion settlement with former players went into effect, a damning new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association moved the issue of player health and safety back to the fore. Two days later, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel decided to retire.
More than anything, perhaps, the league needs to find a new narrative that will capture casual fans—“Who Can Beat the Patriots?” has been around for 15 years—and a new generation of stars to fill the void left by the Peyton Manning and, eventually, Tom Brady.
The Cowboys’ breakout last year—led by two rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott—has been undercut by the league’s disciplinary battle with Elliott. The NFL this summer suspended Elliott fo six games over his alleged assault of a former girlfriend. But Elliott is slated to play in the first week of the season as his appeal to the league and a related court fight are still unresolved.
There are other emerging stars. Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota are trendy bets for MVP. The re-birth of the long-struggling Oakland Raiders is tantalizing, especially with the transcendent linebacker Khalil Mack. But the team’s planned move to Las Vegas could dampen enthusiasm within its fan base.
Network executives are also trying to devise new winning plays.
CBS Sports President Sean McManus said he took out a blank piece of paper to redo pairings of play-by-play and analysts. That’s how he wound up what might be the most-talked about move of the entire NFL offseason—replacing Jim Nantz’s partner and former New York Giants star Phil Simms on the network’s lead broadcast team. That blockbuster acquisition to give audiences a younger and fresher voice for the network’s biggest games: Tony Romo.