The truth about NFL television ratings

Philadelphia Eagles' Dallas Goedert (88) cannot catch a pass in the end zone above Atlanta Falcons' Duke Riley (42) during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) PXE118
Philadelphia Eagles' Dallas Goedert (88) cannot catch a pass in the end zone above Atlanta Falcons' Duke Riley (42) during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) PXE118
Published Sept. 7, 2018

Does the NFL have a television ratings problem or not?

Depends on how you look at it.

The 2018 NFL season opened up Thursday night and the ratings were not great by NFL standards. The NFL Kickoff game between the Falcons and defending-champion Eagles drew an overnight rating of 13.4. That essentially means that 13.4 percent of the U.S. households with televisions were tuned in. And that was the lowest rating for the NFL Kickoff game since 2008.

To be fair, the game started an hour late — a few minutes after 9 p.m. — because of a weather delay. Plus the first half was not well-played and incredibly boring. It's comes as no surprise that many folks would have checked out by the time halftime rolled around at close 11 p.m. on a week night.

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Then again, there's the argument that many fans are boycotting the NFL for a variety of reasons and that Thursday was simply the continuation of trend that started two years ago.

According to Nielsen, NFL ratings saw a 9.7 percent drop last season from 2016. And the drop from 2015 to 2016 was 8 percent.

Check out this chart looking at the average viewership drops in the past year:

Sunday Night Football

2016: 20.32-million

2017: 18.75-million

ESPN Monday Night Football

2016: 11.39 million

2017: 10.75 million

Thursday Night Football

2016: 12.43 million

2017: 10.93 million

If you ask many, including President Trump, it's because fans are turned off by players who kneel for the national anthem.

But here's where that theory slips off the rails:

NASCAR has seen a 19 percent drop in viewership since 2017 and a 29 percent dip since 2016. No NASCAR driver has ever protested the anthem. In fact, the anthem is celebrated more (and, unlike most sports, televised) in NASCAR than any sport. You could make the claim that there is no sport that is more, well, "American'' than NASCAR. Yet its ratings have plummeted more than the NFL.

Actually, a case can be made that NFL ratings are doing pretty well.

No television program in all of 2017 had bigger audiences than Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football. Of the top 50 most-watched shows in 2017, 37 were NFL games. And do know what was the most-watched cable program of the year? No, not Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. It was Monday Night Football. And, if you ask any football fan, they'll tell you that Monday Night Football has been a landing spot for bad match-ups and games in recent years.

Now, a couple of things. Yes, overall TV numbers for the NFL are down. But ratings for all of television are down.

According to Nielsen, TV ratings for all programs on NBC were down 19 percent in 2017. Fox was down 8 percent. CBS was down 19 percent. ABC was down 15 percent. On and on it goes. TBS, Univision, AMC, Food Network, Lifetime and even Disney saw significant drops in viewership.

What does that tell you?

It says people are cord-cutting. That means fewer cable subscriptions and, thus, lower viewership numbers for everything. The NFL's 9 percent drop in TV viewership is actually much, much lower than the losses seen by networks across the board, suggesting that the NFL ratings are doing well compared to the rest of television.

There's more.

Those who watch NFL games in bars or in large groups cannot be calculated into the ratings.

And, in the biggest impact on ratings of all, many viewers have become addicted to the NFL Red Zone channel, which jumps from one game to another. Those viewers aren't locked into one game, and that means ratings for individual games suffer greatly.

One more thing.

While the 13.4 rating for Thursday night's Eagles-Falcons game was disappointing by NFL standards, that rating is still a huge number for television. That's the kind of number a show like The Big Bang Theory gets and that is considered one of the most popular shows on television. And, let's see how the Sunday night games this year do. History suggests that most of the games will do much better than the 3.4 of Thursday's game.

The point of all this?

In the end, NFL ratings are in good shape, regardless of what the president or anyone else suggests.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow @tomwjones