NFL TV Ratings Are Still Tanking Even During Playoffs

Once America's most popular sport, pro football appears to continue to lose ground with viewers.

NFL ratings still heading south
Jeff Roberson / AP Images

Once America's most popular sport, pro football appears to continue to lose ground with viewers.

After viewership declined 10 percent in the regular season, the downward trend in National Football League television ratings is apparently continuing, even with three of the four divisional round games going down to the wire last weekend.

Various explanations have been offered for the loss of regular season viewers. These include oversaturation of games being telecast, non-competitive games, inconsistent officiating, poor quality of play (especially in the quarterback position), player injuries, consumers gravitating toward Netflix and other forms of streaming entertainment instead of traditional TV, and the national anthem protests.

Generally an uptick would be expected once the playoffs roll around, but that has not yet occurred, although that could change after ratings for today’s NFL AFC and NFC conference championship games, the heavily favored New England Patriots hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Minnesota Vikings visiting the Philadelphia Eagles, get tabulated.

In last week’s division round, NFL ratings were down, however, a stunning 16 percent for the weekend over last year on a national basis, CNN reported, even including the dramatic miracle finish with the Minnesota Vikings beating the New Orleans Saints on Stefon Diggs’ last-second touchdown catch. That game was down 23 percent — or about 13 million viewers — from the equivalent matchup, Packers vs. Cowboys, in 2017. Overall, each game lost about 6 million viewers from the previous year

Ratings also fell 13 percent year over year on the Wild Card weekend.

“To be sure, NFL games are the highest-rated live sports on TV and advertisers still scramble to advertise on the telecasts as they draw high numbers of young male viewers. But the trend line doesn’t look good,” the New York Post concluded.

According to Clay Travis’ Outkick the Coverage blog, NFL ratings are in a state of collapse.

“120.8 million viewers watched the NFL divisional round playoffs in 2018 vs. 144.1 million who watched in 2017, a decline of 23.3 million total viewers….These playoff numbers weren’t just bad compared to last year either, they hit a ten-year low…”

NFL ratings tanking even in playoffs so far
  Jeff Roberson / AP Images

Although many sports analysts have downplayed the impact of dissatisfaction with the national anthem protests, anecdotal evidence on social media and elsewhere suggests at least a portion of the NFL fan base has become alienated from the league because some players kneeled during the Star-Spangled Banner as a form of political activism. In October, a survey of 1,000 registered voters suggested that the NFL had become America’s least favored among the major professional sports, a perhaps indicative turnaround. Other surveys have similarly outlined a significant erosion in NFL brand favorability. In another public opinion poll, 51 percent of respondents revealed that they were watching less football, and 70 percent of that cohort attributed that to the games becoming too political. Against this backdrop, college football viewership has experienced major gains.

In the meantime, the TV rights to the NFL games on Thursday nights are up for renewal. The way in which that develops in terms of which networks submit a bid and for how much may provide a window into how the media industry forecasts the future direction of NFL TV ratings.