Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Good and Bad Reasons Why the NFL's Ratings Are Down

The drop in TV ratings has become a large story. It was hard to get too worked-up about it the first week, one that featured a Manning-less Super Bowl rematch, and a Brady-less SNF game. But consistently ratings have been down all year (oddly, the one data-point for a rise was the Wee 3 TNF game between New England and Houston). Many reasons have been thrown. Some good, some bad; some enlightening, some infuriating. Here now are my thoughts on 5 bad reasons that I've heard on why the ratings are slipping, and five one's that might just be true and worth examining more.

The NFL Ratings are not down because of....

5.) Domestic Violence Issues

To be fair, not many people have brought this one up. Domestic Violence Issues dominated the 2014 season, which saw ratings go down slightly for 2013. That was the year the Ray Rice scandal happened, where Adrian Peterson missed 15 games, where the 'Commissioner's List' became a thing. It was a dark time for the NFL. It alienated a lot of women fans. A lot of NFL fans had to do some soul searching. And yet ratings went up in 2015 from 2014. There is no evidence to think there is some great delayed effect that is only showing up now.

4.) Poor play caused by lack of practice time

I'll get to another poor play issue in that I do think is impacting ratings, but I don't buy that general sloppiness is to blame. The game has been fairly sloppy for years, and while practice time in pads is less now than before, the overall nature of the game has been pretty steady. Teams are passing more, overall offensive levels are consistent with the last 3-4 years at this point. Defenses are about as good as they've been post lockout, and there are probably more dominant defenses now than there were in the immediate years following the lockout. Honestly, I have found the average game this year to be more well played than the last couple.

3.) Poor play caused by bad / younger players

This became a popular one when a study by a writer on The Ringer highlighted that the league as a whole is getting younger following the new rookie-wage scale rules - that when rookies are less expensive there will be more of them, and that these rookies are not as good as the guys who's job they are taking. I find this to be a really bad reason to explain even why play is worse, forget about any impact it would have on ratings. Tell me what players saw their careers cut short because they were too old & expensive and were replaced by a younger, cheaper player. Also, it is hard to say this is making play worse while also commending the teams who have used this to build great teams (Seattle, mostly). Players have retired early not because they were pushed out or became too expensive. I can't think of one example where this happened to a player that was important enough to actually impact ratings.

2.) The Game is simply less popular and this is the beginning of the end

There is some truth to this, and overall the NFL should be worrying, but I highlight doubt the NFL suddenly became 10% less popular overnight. Nothing structurally has changed in the game or the demographics in the past year. Sports are generally declining as ALL TV VIEWING IS DECLINING, but there is something more to the drop of the NFL ratings than just saying the sport has peaked. It will peak at some point, but it will likely be more gradual than a sudden 10% drop like we are seeing this year. Maybe 1% of the 10% drop is explained by the popularity of the league peaking, but no way is it a primary driving factor.

1.) Thursday Night Football

And now let's get to the worst reason. It is not Thursday Night Football. It never has been. Thursday Night Football started in 2006. It became a full-season affair in 2012. I guarantee you it has been a positive influence for the NFL. Not only has it made the league a ton of money as having a separate package to sell, but it for the most part, has elevated games that would be lost in the maw of Sunday 1PM timeslots. I am pretty sure more people are watching each Thursday Night Game than they would have been watching that same game if it was on Sunday along with 6-7 other games. I slightly get the complaints that it was a show of the NFL's expanding greed to shove its product onto another night, but for the most part Thursday's were not aligned with another sport (at least until NBA on TNT Thursday's start in November), and if that was an issue, it would have cropped up a lot earlier given we are now in Year 11 of Thursday Night Football, Year 6 of having it through the regular season, and Year 3 of having it on Network TV.

The NFL Ratings ARE down because of.....

5.) Concussion Fears are impacting fans

Again, the concussion issue is nothing new. The first year I remember a significant discussion on concussions in the NFL was in 2009. There have been serious concussion-related incidents and media outcry probably since 2011 or so. While again, it is hard to look to concussions as a factor when the ratings rose on the whole since 2009, but I do think there are a few reasons that make 2016 a bit different. The largest is this was the first year that saw good players retire citing concussions as a reason. Whether it was Calvin Johnson, or Patrick Willis, or even Marshawn Lynch, there were multiple guys walking away at young ages saying that this played into their thinking. Now, some of the drop can be just losing these players (will talk about this one shortly), but the other is the more high profile players that admit concussion fears got them to leave the league, the more fans will do the same.

4.) General Apathy to Sports

If we look back two months ago, we had a similar sporting event that saw serious declines in ratings. The 2016 Rio Olympics were down double-digits from the 2012 London Olympics. There was also a lot of negative press and headlines surrounding that, but when you couple that drop with record lows for baseball playoffs, overall bad ratings for NBA playoffs (rescued by Cavs/Warriors in the finals), then it becomes a little more understandable. This past year we've seen some truly bad signs for sports across the board. Cord-cutting is becoming a larger factor, and while the impact of cord-cutting and DVR-ing (and Torrent-ing, etc.) has been impacted scripted TV for years, maybe there was a general delayed impact on sports that is only now being felt.

3.) Bad Matchups so far / misalignment with markets and good teams

So many times the headline for the bad ratings will be that a game this year was down 10-15% off of the same game last year in that time-slot that week. For instance, the Patriots-Cardinals Week 1 SNF game was down double-digits from last year's Week 1 SNF game between the Giants and Cowboys. With this the first thing people will do is compare the matchup, but more than that compare the market. The best teams heading into the season were Denver, Carolina, Arizona, New England, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Seattle. For now let's limit it to just those seven. In that group we have two teams with either large home markets (New England), or giant national followings (Pittsburgh). Then you have some of the league's smaller markets: Denver, the Carolinas, Cincinati, Seattle. When you have the best teams coming from small markets, well then they'll be on primetime more and the ratings go down. The complement to this is when the world complained that the same large-market teams were on primetime games for years. Well, if they scheduled NFC East games, while sprinkling in New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Houston each week people would rightfully call the NFL out for ratings grabbing.

2.) Loss of premier talent, especially at QB

Here's to me the largest football-related reason. If you think the games are worse, it isn't because there are too many young players (at least not directly that), or that teams are practicing yet, it is that the players making up the most marketable position in the league are changing fast. For a good 15 yeras, the NFL was carried, at a high level, by Manning and Brady. These two guys were good for 8-10 National Games a year that would be huge ratings (and 5-6 more 4:30 late-afternoon games as well). For the first four weeks of the season, the league saw what life was like without either one. Denver's ratings tanked. New England's were OK, but they still were angry at the league and knew Brady was coming back. Add to that the loss of Tony Romo, the relative average-ness of Drew Brees, and you get a situation where the top QBs aren't huge names yet. Maybe in 5 years, a league led by Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr and Carson Wentz can be a ratings giant, but right now losing Peyton Manning hurts ratings - especially when Denver will play three primetime games in six weeks. Losing Brady for four games hurts. Losing Romo hurts the Dallas rating. Beyond that are the host of other guys who retired, and it is pretty easy to draw that line.

1.) The Election

At this point, even the NFL has adopted this line - and in a way I am glad because it is easy to test. We can actually see what ratings are like after the election and if they go up. Obviously, the election happens every four years, but not like this. Never has an election dominated the media lanscape like this, with one candidate so polarizing, so capable of drawing the TV and News attention to drown out everything else. I have to imagine cable news ratings are way up, as is any sort of news, or the comedy shows that cover the election. People that I know as sports-writers / sports-bloggers tweet about the election basically as much as they tweet about football. Even on Sunday, the election becomes a draw, whether it is watching the morning interview shows, or catching up on DVR-ed episodes of The Daily Show, or catching up on the life events you missed during the week when the election mattered above all. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe the ratings don't go up when the election ends, but for right now this seems like the clear best explanation.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.