Joe Flint and Alexandra Bruell wrote a story in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that noted that NFL ratings were down 7% through Week 13 of this regular season, and even more so in the men 18-49 and 25-54 demographics. They reported that this has resulted in networks “making good” with advertisers — providing commercial inventory for later events to account for an under-delivery of expected audience — and in some cases giving pricing discounts which are “usually unheard of” with the NFL.
The number would be even greater than 7% if out-of-home viewers were not counted in the numbers. This year, for the first time, Nielsen is accounting for out-of-home viewership immediately. This means that this season’s numbers include out-of-home and are being compared to last season’s numbers, which did not. While there are fewer people now leaving their homes to watch games at sports bars or with friends and family due to the pandemic, it’s nonetheless presumable that ratings are actually down double digits.
You would normally view a double-digit decline as an alarming negative, but I actually think it’s a remarkable testament to the power of the NFL that they aren’t down even more. We are coming off of a heated election season when cable news viewership set records. For casual viewers, which is where ratings rise and fall on the margins, sports and news are substitute products.
Viewership also continues to migrate to streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+, to the extent that entertainment programming is virtually non-existent on the ratings charts on traditional TV. Judging from my two-year-old’s consumption, YouTube on smart TVs is also a major factor in this discussion about where viewership is going with our youth.
Games have been moved all over the place, including Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. This includes tentpole events like the Thanksgiving primetime game between the Ravens and Steelers.
Other sports would kill to have the NFL’s problems. I’m not sure the general public realizes the extent to which more people watch the NFL than every other sport — and everything else — on television. For example, the Chiefs and Bills game that got rescheduled from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon averaged 12.16 million viewers. There have been 13 NFL windows through Week 13 that averaged over 20 million viewers. The most-watched NBA Finals game this year averaged 8.89 million viewers.
As I’ve previously written, according to a study by Sports Business Journal, NFL windows comprised 78 of the top 100 most watched TV telecasts in 2019 — including sports and not sports. The NBA had two. MLB had zero. The NFL had nine of the top 10 most watched TV programs of the year and 23 of the top 25. The Oscars and CFP title game were the outliers at No. 9 and No. 17.
The NFL will continue to dominate the traditional TV landscape for the foreseeable future, and I expect viewership to rebound next year when the news competition should be less robust. Therefore, I don’t see this year’s ratings declines as a five-alarm fire for concern, but the NFL and sports in general are going to have to scratch and claw to fight off attrition in an increasingly fragmented content world.