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Thu, April 18

Column: National Football League ratings decline inconsequential

The September TV ratings are in and viewership of early season NFL games is down 10 percent from last year’s numbers. That much is clear.

What isn’t as clear is the reason behind the falloff.

Speculation abounds on the cause of the lower ratings. Among the alleged culprits are the National Anthem protests by players, overexposure of the product, lousy matchups, the loss of key players such as Peyton Manning (retired) and Tom Brady (serving a four-game suspension for his alleged role in Deflategate), declining interest in a sport that has been vilified for the toll it extracts on its players, the legal attacks on the fantasy sports industry, and alternative methods of consumption, e.g., streaming video.

Many network executives and the league itself are blaming the presidential election, with good reason. There’s little doubt that the Clinton/ Trump drama has siphoned viewers away from the NFL. According to Nielsen, the first debate between the two candidates averaged 84 million viewers, the largest audience in the history of presidential debates. The candidates went head-to-head with Monday Night Football and the game between the Saints and Falcons drew only eight million viewers, the lowest number in the history of MNF. Overall, MNF viewership is down almost double the average for all NFL games, a staggering 19 percent.

Sports Business Journal reporters John Ourand and Austin Karp wrote an article detailing how the news networks, particularly Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, have all gained significant increases in viewership and compared that to the losses suffered by the sports networks. They quoted Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of programming and research, who said the opening weeks of this NFL season reminded him of the fall of 2000. That presidential election year pitted George W. Bush against Al Gore. It was also the only year in the first decade of this century where all four NFL TV packages saw a decline in viewership from the previous year. Ratings for the World Series that year saw a drop of 22 percent. It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens this year.

The NFL isn’t the only strong sports brand that experienced a significant drop-off in ratings this year. NBC’s primetime Olympics broadcasts were down 15 percent from 2012. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, the decline was a staggering 25 percent among 18- to 49-year-olds.

Should the dip in NFL ratings become permanent, it’s unlikely to affect anyone’s bottom line in the short term. Even in a weakened state, the NFL will remain a strong franchise. Networks and their advertisers, who lust after the 18- to 49-year-old male market, are unlikely to suddenly begin throwing billions at the Cooking Channel.

Not surprisingly, ratings are taken seriously at NFL headquarters, so much so that the League sent a memo to team owners designed to ease concerns about the early numbers. NFL senior executives Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz stated, “While our partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings, they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue.” The letter went on to say that over the last 15 years, viewership has grown 27 percent and that football “continues to be far and away the most powerful programming on television and the best place for brands and advertisers.” The NFL also threw cold water on the suggestion that the League lost fans who were angered by players not standing for the National Anthem, saying it sees no evidence to support that contention.

The NFL is right: This isn’t the time to panic. Contrary to one of Yogi Berra’s alleged malapropisms, it isn’t getting “late early.”

The season is young and NFL owners and television executives should take a wait and see attitude. While Manning is unlikely to pull a Brett Favre and put on a uniform, Brady returned to the field on Sunday. And believe it or not, the presidential election will end, leaving fans that deserted the NFL for the reality show with one less entertainment option.

Let’s check the ratings at the end of the season before we write an obituary on a sport that has set the gold standard for popularity.

The NFL is a special franchise and should be just fine. If you want to worry about something, worry about the future of the country.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at

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