Declining TV ratings could be the new normal for the NFL

The continued drop in NFL TV ratings has been one of the biggest stories of the first half of the season.

But the drop may not be as big a problem as it first appears, based on an interesting statistic pointed out by NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart on a conference call Friday.

The Oakland Raiders-Kansas City Chiefs game drew an 8.8 rating on CBS Thursday night. The combined rating for the shows on NBC, ABC and Fox was 8.8.

That’s a combined rating of 17.6, meaning that 17.6 percent of all TV sets in the country tuned into network programming.

And 82.4 percent of all TV sets were either turned off or watching cable.

That shows the fans aren’t turning the channel and watching other network shows. They’re simply not watching network shows. They’re watching cable TV, aren’t watching TV or they’re on social media or streaming. Or maybe even spending more time playing with the kids.

The network ratings are down for all programming. It’s just a fact of life in changing times.

Lockhart also said that the anthem protests are a factor but not the factor.

Not that the NFL doesn’t have to be concerned. The owners were told, according to Sports Illustrated, that ratings are down over 18 percent from two years ago and over 7 percent from last year for the first six weeks.

And it’s not like they’re just not watching national games. Turns out that the ratings for 25 of the 31 teams are down, not counting the Los Angeles Chargers, who are a basket case because of the ill-advised move to L.A. And 19 teams are down more than five percent.

Some of the most popular teams are down. The New England Patriots are down 8 percent, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants 7, the Pittsburgh Steelers 6 and the New York Jets a whopping 37 percent. Only three teams, the Chiefs, Tampa Bay Bucs and Detroit Lions, are up more than five percent.

Still, as Lockhart pointed out, NFL games are the best programming the networks have.

This doesn’t mean the NFL doesn’t have problems, starting with poor leadership at the top with commissioner Roger Goodell. The NFL is too much into marketing and too arrogant that it forgets it’s a football league.

And it gets bogged down into long court fights with the players over silly issues like Deflategate.

Goodell seems obsessed with having power instead of devoting his time to football.

Pete Rozelle used to tell his staff, “remember, we kickoff every Sunday at 1 p.m.’’ The point was that the emphasis was on football in those days.

Goodell has said his goal to get league revenue to $25 billion by the middle of the next decade. Maybe the goal should be to get football that people want to watch.

And there is oversaturation of football on TV, including the colleges.

It also doesn’t help there are no dynasty teams. Every team in the AFC already has two losses, so there are no must-see teams.

It’ll be interesting to see how the NFL copes with declining ratings in the coming years. They can’t take it for granted fans are going to tune in. They have to find a way to convince them they don’t want to miss NFL football.

The real proof of the pudding will come when the TV contracts are up in a few years. Will the NFL still get increases because it’s the best attraction the networks have? Or will the networks refuse to pay more?

ESPN is a special case. They way overpaid for “Monday Night Football,” thinking they could keep raising prices to the cable companies forever. Now the cable companies are finding out they can’t keep passing the increases along as consumers cut the cord. Will they continue to pay as much as they are now?

There’s always a chance, of course, that ratings will rebound. But I think this is the new normal, a trend that’s going to continue. It’s just a question of whether the league can stop the bleeding and not drop any further.

Still, the sky is not falling for the NFL — at least not yet.

These are challenging times, though. For almost 60 years, starting with the 1958 overtime game between the Baltimore Colts and Giants and the founding of the AFL that led to the merger and the Super Bowl, the NFL continued to soar.

Now it appears to have hit a plateau — or may even be falling. It’s too soon to see how this is going to play out. But it’s going to be interesting to find out how the NFL deals with the way things are now.


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