Last year, it seemed like no one could touch the NFL ratings juggernaut. Thursday Night Football had become firmly established, cementing three days a week which firmly belonged to the gridiron. Yet, this year, NFL ratings have begun to slip. It’s got TV prognosticators everywhere trying to figure out what’s behind this trend.
To listen to the NFL, the contentious presidential election has driving down ratings. Debates, public appearances, and news shows have all been scheduled opposite NFL games, and have drawn males between 18 and 39- typically a key football-watching demographic. Add to that a potentially historic baseball playoff ( the last time the Chicago Cubs won the world series, the Ottoman Empire existed), and you’ve got a recipe for ratings disaster for football.
This explanation really doesn’t cut it. The NFL commands time slots outside of typical prime time viewing. Sunday is usually a slow news day, and most baseball games take place outside of the Sunday afternoon range. There’s little competition for the nation’s attention during those times, yet ratings are still sagging.
A small but vocal minority insist that protests by players are driving disgust with the league, but this seems like a pretty weak explanation. Why would football fans care more about players refusing to stand for the national anthem than they do about the actual violent crimes that have plagued the league for years? Ratings didn’t plummet after Ravens runningback Ray Rice was videotaped knocking his fiance unconscious, nor when Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was convicted of murder. If the dial doesn’t tick for these and other serious criminal offenses, a few players refusing to be patriotic shouldn’t move it much.
One interesting theory is that the rise of e-sports have distracted the younger generation. While it’s hard to think of two groups who have less in common than football fans and e-sports fans, there’s at least some truth to this. While the NFL has made little progress in online streaming of their games, e-sports have embraced new technology. An increasing number of people have ditched TV service for internet entertainment, and the NFL may be left by the wayside. The uptick in e-sports viewership and the decline in NFL viewership may be driven by the same shift in entertainment media.
More to the point, it may be less that actual NFL viewership has declined and more that the way people watch has changed. As more and more people get away from traditional TV broadcasts, internet streaming video will have more of a market share. It’s currently far easier for a football fan to watch a bootleg stream of a game than it is to watch it online directly from the league. When a product is easier to steal than to buy legally, that’s trouble for its manufacturer. If the NFL wants to reclaim its position as king of the live event, they need to make it easier for people to pay them for their service.