NFL TV ratings fall for second-straight year, but still dominate prime time

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  • NFL ratings dropped drastically in 2017, losing 9.7% of their viewership compared to the 2016 season.
  • A myriad of reasons could have potentially played a factor in the NFL’s declining ratings, including changing media habits of the public, player injuries, and concerns about player protests or player safety.
  • Even with their drop in ratings, the NFL is still the most dominant product on the television landscape, responsible for 20 of the 30 highest-rated broadcasts of the year.

NFL ratings were down yet again this year, dropping 9.7% during the 2017 regular season.

According to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, the average game was watched by 1.6 million fewer people this season compared to last season. The drop comes after the league had taken steps to improve the experience of watching games, including working with new ways of showing commercials and attempting to speed up the game — an effort inspired by a similar drastic drop in viewership the league suffered in the 2016 season.

While the 2016 drop was largely attributed to the presidential election, which intensified just as the season was hitting its stride, the 2017 loss of viewership was likely a combination of many factors.

First and foremost, ratings are still going down across the board, as more and more Americans choose to cut the cord and get their entertainment through Netflix, Hulu, and other apps rather than paying for traditional cable. While NFL streaming services like “Sunday Ticket” still make it possible for those without cable to watch games, it’s not a service that casual fans are likely to spend money on. Additionally, NFL RedZone, which toggles between the most exciting games during busy Sunday slates, has only grown more popular in recent years, and could likely be taking some viewership from both local and national broadcasts of afternoon games.

Additionally, the on-the-field product of the NFL was poor compared to years past. A slew of injuries to the league’s most exciting players left many fans both dismayed by their team’s chances but also watching a subpar game. With a schedule of “Thursday Night Football” games sometimes advertising matchups between quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Brock Osweiler, it left fans much to be desired.

Also, there are some that believe that the string of political protests, in which players knelt during the national anthem in protest of systemic racism and injustice in the legal system, had an effect on viewership. When the president got involved in the conversation and the protests became even more widespread, some of Trump’s supporters claimed to have sworn off football for good.

And finally, there is the growing public concern of player safety. With the public more knowledgeable regarding player safety than ever before, there are those that have decided to stop watching the sport. While rules have been enacted to make the game safer, the destructive nature of football could be leaving some fans to look elsewhere for their leisure viewing.

But despite whatever combination of factors caused the NFL’s numbers to fall in 2017, professional football remains the most dominant programming in television. The NFL claimed 20 of the top 30 highest-rated shows of the year, and the national games broadcasts on NBC and ESPN won their weeks every single week in key demographics. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” won primetime this fall for the seventh straight year.

With the entirety of media and entertainment splitting off into more and more specified niches, football may never again reach the heights of popularity it once enjoyed in terms of overall viewership. But even if that’s true, it’s likely that the NFL will still be the most reliable ratings giant that network television has.

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