The NFL may have retained its position as the most popular sports league in the United States last year, but its numbers weren’t as impressive as before. Ratings dropped by 8 percent, and it was the first time the NFL had seen a ratings backslide in four years.
If analyst Michael Nathanson is right, this season will be a return to form. The most significant factor he points to regarding the NFL’s ratings last year is the 2016 Presidential Election. Elections always attract quite a bit of attention, but that was even more true last year, in no small part because of the constant media attention on Donald Trump. Some of the Presidential Debates also took place on the same nights as NFL games.
One reason this theory on the election holds water is because the NFL’s ratings suffered a much larger decrease in the leadup to the election compared to after. For games before the election, ratings dipped 12 percent, but the post-election games only suffered a 5-percent drop.
If that theory holds true, then the NFL won’t have much to worry about this year. But there are other factors that likely also played a part.
Bad matchups in the primetime games were a problem. Many of those games didn’t feature the league’s best teams. It’s always a delicate balancing act between ensuring a variety of teams have primetime games while also putting the topnotch matchups between the best teams in primetime.
Colin Kaepernick, who was quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers last year, made headlines when he protested police brutality against minorities by refusing to stand for the national anthem before every game. This may have also turned off some fans, although it’s unknown if any actually decided to boycott watching the NFL because of it.
Off-field behavioral issues and concussions may have had a small effect on viewership numbers, but these have been around for years and it’s unlikely that either played a large role in the declining ratings.
As far as what Nathanson is predicting, he sees Sunday Night Football going up by 5 percent and Monday Night Football jumping a stellar 11 percent. That would be great news for the networks, because NFL games make up a huge portion of their overall ratings. Not only do the games draw huge viewer numbers, but they also provide a viewership boost for the programs that are next on the schedule.