The NFL is mired in a ratings slump, down a second straight year over 2015’s high-water mark. But there’s another side to the story: the NFL remains TV’s unchallenged champion, accounting for 13 of the top 20 and 37 of the top 50 most-watched programs in 2017.
Nielsen’s live-plus-same-day data pegged Super Bowl LI, Patriots-Falcons, as the top individual program of the year, with 111.3 million viewers. A far-distant second was the Dallas-Green Bay divisional playoff, with the Pittsburgh-New England championship ranking third. The only non-NFL program to rank in the top seven was President Trump’s address to Congress, which placed fourth. (See the full list here.)
Beyond football, what Nielsen’s Top 50 list demonstrates is the power of live broadcasts. Not a single pre-recorded program cracked the entire top 50, with awards shows, presidential addresses, the World Series, the NBA Finals, and the college football and basketball playoffs making up the remainder of the non-NFL top 50 list.
The NFL’s television presence is truly a half-full/half-empty scenario. It’s indisputable that ratings are down for the NFL from 2015 highs; ratings are down from 2016 levels by an average of eight percent. Opponents of the NFL’s protests this season proclaim that disgust with the league’s social stances is the prime, or even only, reason for the decline, but the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out. Ratings for all primetime programs are down 9 percent, suggesting that while politics surely plays some role in viewers’ decisions to turn away from the NFL, kneeling isn’t as responsible for the ratings decline as changing viewing habits.
Plus, the NFL owns both those individual programs noted above as well as Sunday Night Football, which finished 2017 as the top-rated program for a record seventh straight year. And, as AdAge notes, despite some griping from sponsors, revenue for in-game ad sales is up two percent over last year.
The NFL stands as the dominant television force in America by a vast margin, and in an increasingly fragmented world, that’s not an automatically sustainable position. The league faces substantial threats to its continued reign, both from within and without, but for the moment, the NFL continues to take the largest slice of a smaller overall pie.