It’s not breaking news to many that the NFL ratings are down this season through 5 weeks. They are down around 10%, depending on exactly how you choose to segment/compare, a direction that has Goodell and Co. scrambling for answers. I don’t believe there is one clear reason for the decline, but it is likely a variety of factors, including the most polarizing election likely in history (and the debates), some big market struggles (New York and Chicago), some self-inflicted issues (*cough* *cough* suspensions), and, the biggest of all, ‘NFL fatigue’.
Let’s put the election aside, understanding it definitely plays a factor in lower viewership opposite the debates, but it is certainly not the sole cause. The first main cause in my mind revolves around large market teams. The New York Giants and New York Jets are a combined 3-7 this year. Both have lost 3 straight games and are in last place in their respective divisions (the Jets are tied for last in the AFC East and the Giants are alone at the bottom of the NFC East). Although there are plenty of devoted fans of both the Giants and Jets who will always watch, regardless of their records, when big market teams suck, bandwagon fans jump off and casual fan ratings suffer. When a market like New York or Chicago (Bears are 1-4) has teams struggling to win, that hurts ratings for the entire NFL.
Then there is the 2,000 lb elephant in the room: the suspension of Tom Brady. Thanks to Goodell’s ridiculous decision, the league was without Brady for the first 4 weeks of the season, limiting the number of casual fans who tune in. During the first Sunday night game against the Arizona Cardinals, NBC did a 14.8 rating, which out of context is excellent, but a more than 10% drop over the 2015 Sunday Night opener (16.7). Guess what? Stars drive ratings. No Brady, lower ratings. Who’s fault is that? It’s the definition of self-inflicted.
Finally, it is still amazing to me that after domestic violence cases, child abuse cases, sexual assault cases, and every other crime/stupid move in the book tarnishing the NFL’s reputation, that ratings still remained strong and even grew last season. My newly developed theory? The NFL ratings drop is, at least partially, due to a delayed reaction to the NFL’s mishandling of dozens of player situations combined with the endless deflategate talk. I believe it has developed into ‘NFL fatigue’ that has grown to a point of driving the more peripheral viewers away from the game. Fans who like football, but aren’t seriously invested in a team (or fantasy football) are opting to spend their Sundays (and Thursdays and Mondays) watching or doing other things. They have reached a breaking point and are no longer going to go out of their way to watch football.
In a hailmary effort to turn the tides, the NFL issued a ban on team twitter accounts posting highlight videos during the time-frame when the live game is airing on TV. The NFL thinks that fans who are on twitter watching highlights are less likely to watch the game live and that is a cause of the decreased ratings. That doesn’t just waft of desperation, it’s a giant diaper filled with desperation.
Given all these factors, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a little rebound before the season is over, but I’m not convinced the damage hasn’t already been done. I’m not convinced casual fans drifting away from the NFL won’t just stay away for good, causing a deeper ratings crisis for Goodell.