Don’t Believe Anyone who Says the NFL is in Trouble

Over the past few seasons, rumors of the NFL’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The league went through some tough times from both a financial and public relations perspective in recent seasons. But that all may be turning around. Don’t believe anyone who says the NFL is in trouble. 

The NFL ratings dip of 2017

The NFL’s ratings suffered greatly in 2017. At the end of the season, Sports Illustrated prepared a post-mortem for the NFL’s sinking ratings that year, and the results weren’t pretty: 

  • Sunday Night Football averaged 18.2 million viewers, its lowest total since 2008.
  • Thursday Night Football averaged its lowest total since broadcast networks joined the package in 2014 with an average of 10.9 million viewers.
  • Ratings for Monday Night Football were generally good, but a few bad games late in the season saw the program notch its lowest audience ever with 10.7 million viewers. 

Regular-season ratings were down almost 9% from 2016 while. Only one game averaged over a 15.0 rating. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused the dip in ratings, but a few issues may have played a role.

Why the NFL ratings took a dive in 2017

Despite what some might say, the NFL is not in trouble financially.
Despite what some might say, the NFL is not in trouble financially. | Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

As the NFL ratings went into a tailspin in 2017, it wasn’t due to any one factor. It was probably a combination of several factors at once:

  • Though he was no longer in the league at that point, Colin Kaepernick‘s protests against police brutality and the reactions to it lingered.
  • Many nationally popular teams had subpar seasons. It was the first season in which the Packers, Giants, Cowboys, 49ers, and Raiders all missed the playoffs since 1964.
  • NBC had a lackluster slew of Sunday Night games, exacerbated by the fact that they didn’t exercise their flex option once.

Those below-average numbers caused alarm, motivating some to speculate about whether the NFL was in trouble. One analyst in the SI piece quoted “supersaturation” as a possible reason for the downward trend. Now that the NFL is on three nights a week instead of two, perhaps the fans are getting tired of the product.

But the NFL saw a course correction during the following season. 

Ratings rebound in 2018

The NFL’s ratings increased tremendously in 2018, going up by 5%. Other good news included the NFL having 46 of the top 50 telecasts during the regular season. According to Sports Illustrated: 

“Thursday Night Football broadcasts averaged 14.9 million viewers, an uptick of 4% … Sunday Night Football averaged 19.3 million viewers, which marked an increase of 6%. Monday Night Football broadcasts garnered 11.6 million viewers, signaling an 8% growth from 2017.”

The NFL appeared to be crawling out of its 2017 funk. Telecasts across the board were drawing more viewers. But how would this upward swing impact the following season? 

Ad pricing shows the NFL might no longer be in trouble

Due to last year’s ratings going up, the NFL’s 2019 ad pricing went up as well. According to Anthony Crupi from Ad Age

“NFL ad pricing rebounded after last year’s drop, as buyers report that the average unit cost of a 30-second in-game spot purchased in the 2019-20 upfront was up between 5 percent and 10% compared to the year-ago bazaar. Dollar volume also has improved, with advertisers pinning more of their budgets to media’s most reliable reach vehicle.”

The NFL is in the entertainment business, and the cold hard reality is that most entertainment exists to sell advertising. That’s why the price of a program’s ads act as a good indicator of how it’s performing. 

In reaction to the viewers returning, advertisers are showing more belief in the NFL’s product. How this season’s ratings perform is anyone’s guess — it’s likely dependent on the quality of play and an increase in the nation’s interest in sports betting — but for now, the NFL is definitely back trending in the right direction.