Football Ratings Face Interception From Politics, Streaming Options

Daniel Holloway

Back in July, Donald Trump pointed to the scheduling of two presidential debates opposite primetime NFL games as evidence of a rigged political system.

“I don’t think we should be against the NFL,” Trump told ABC News at the time. His campaign issued a statement warning that “millions of voters will be disenfranchised” by the football counterprogramming.

The ones disenfranchised, it turned out, were the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, whose Sept. 26 “Monday Night Football” matchup aired opposite Trump and Hillary Clinton’s first debate and took a massive ratings hit, down 41% in total viewers from the same week’s “MNF” a year earlier. In another season, such a steep ratings decline would have been an anomaly. This season, it’s part of a trend.

Mario Wagner for Variety

Ratings for each of the first five weekends of the NFL season have been down year on year. Those declines have ranged from 7% to 12% in total viewers for each of the first four weeks. If they continue, they will have a negative effect on earnings for the parent companies of the league’s broadcast partners — and could do long-term damage to the value of high-priced NFL television packages.

The questions looming now are what is causing the ratings slide and whether it will persist. Some have suggested a drag due to an avowed conservative boycott against the league in response to quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest of police violence against black Americans.

But no analysis exists to support claims of a boycott.

A more likely culprit is Trump — or, rather, the presidential campaign that has been made vastly more interesting by Trump’s participation in it. The Saints-Falcons game got creamed because 84 million people tuned in to the first Clinton-Trump debate, the most ever for such a contest. For the Oct. 9 rematch, 66.5 million tuned in.

But the election’s impact extends beyond a couple of debate nights. In the first four weeks of the NFL Season, Sunday afternoon viewership on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC was up 36% from the previous year, averaging an additional 562,000 viewers in total, according to Nielsen. Fox’s Sunday afternoon NFL coverage, meanwhile, was down by 588,000 viewers. CBS was off by 587,000.

Biggest individual viewership declines in weeks 1-4 of the season

There is also historic precedent to lean on. The 2000 NFL season overlapped with the presidential campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which was prolonged by the recount in Florida and court battle between the two candidates. All network NFL packages that season posted year-over-year declines.

“I think it’s commanded such a great share of attention that it’s taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room,” Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive VP of research, league operations, and strategy, says of the current election. Mulvihill believes the presidential contest has not only depressed ratings for football, but affected primetime entertainment programming and NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics. Movie box office also has likely taken a hit.

“It’s really become more difficult than usual to build interest in pretty much anything else in pop culture,” he says.

But the NFL faces competition for eyeballs from more than the election. In primetime, where the steepest football declines have been, viewers have more original programming options than ever. And while streaming services provide a 24-hour challenge to linear programming, audiences are more likely to turn to them in the primetime hours.

“On a Sunday afternoon, the NFL is more of an event — you allocate a few hours to it,” says Jefferies analyst John Janedis. “During prime, there are people spending more time bingeing the commercial-free shows on OTT platforms and on-demand.”

Broadcast and cable networks have already seen viewership of non-sports programming eaten away by digital and on-demand viewing. That erosion helped drive up the sticker price of big sports packages — none more so than the NFL’s, which have seen consistent year-to-year ratings growth and for which almost all viewing is live, and thus easier to monetize than more time-shifted shows. NBC pays nearly $1 billion per year for “Sunday Night Football.” What it gets in return is what was the highest-rated show in primetime for the past four seasons.

4-week ‘Sunday Night Football’ viewership
(5 games: NFL kickoff game + four Sunday night games)

The success of “SNF” helped drive bidding for the newer “Thursday Night Football.” That property has a deal that covers this season and the next, with NBC and CBS each paying $225 million to split a package of 10 games that are simulcast on the NFL Network and Twitter. With two NFL packages each, CBS and NBC parent Comcast are the two companies most exposed should ratings stay down. In a note to investors last month, Janedis predicted that if NFL ratings end the season off 10% from last year, NBC could stand to lose as much as $79.9 million in ad revenue, and CBS as much as $61.5 million.

For companies as large as Comcast and CBS, those losses are minor — representing less than 2% earnings per share for the year for each. But CBS and NBC are locked into Sunday packages with the league that extend through 2022. If ratings continue to decline over the long term, losses will add up. And the NFL could be punished for that when the time comes to renegotiate “Thursday Night Football” for the 2018 season.

Total NFL viewership declines by week
(% change vs. same week in 2015)
sources: Company Reporting, jackdaw research Analysis

“In theory, those rights would cost less,” Janedis says. “There needs to be some return on that investment on behalf of the networks.”

But that’s assuming that five weeks of ratings is a predictor for the next few years. If ratings climb back after the election in November, the effect of early-season declines will be minimal. One indicator that the NFL audience might return to pre-campaign form is reach, which is actually up. In the first four weeks of the season, 149.5 million people watched some portion of an NFL game, versus 149.1 million last season. So the number of people watching NFL football hasn’t declined, just the amount of time they’re spending.

If those viewers are spending less time on football because they’re distracted by the election, but are still watching some games, there is a good chance their attention will shift back to the NFL when the campaign winds down and the playoff race intensifies.

But one outcome could upend that scenario.

“If Clinton wins the election, I think the intensity of news coverage and the social-media chatter flattens out — there’s a normalization,” Mulvihill says. “If Trump wins the election, I think it’s possible it becomes an even more intense story.”

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