The NFL’s recent decline in television ratings could be a reflection of the perfect storm of events that have transpired this season.
It began with actual hurricanes, as viewers in the major football markets in Texas and Florida experienced massive cable outages during the season’s early games. Similarly, fans haven't been able to watch many of their favorite star players as a whirlwind of injuries have affected several former MVP candidates such as J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr. and now Aaron Rodgers.
And a storm of tweets has created perhaps the most debated storyline of the season as President Trump attributed the falling ratings to the players’ lack of patriotism when choosing not to stand for the national anthem.
There is no question that the NFL is not having its best year in terms of public relations. However, the league is not permanently losing viewers because of natural disasters, injuries or political intervention. Ratings are likely falling because of changing television consumption habits and the strong on-field performance of mid-market teams.
In a trend completely unrelated to professional football, viewers from younger generations just do not watch as much television in general as their parents’. This consumption change suddenly has removed the appeal of primetime NFL matchups, such as the league’s once-prestigious Monday Night Football broadcast. Viewers’ new cord-cutting mindset, combined with the growing stigma of football-induced concussions, present the biggest challenge to the league’s future popularity.
Another major cause of the noted viewership decline is that smaller-market teams have outperformed more popular teams, resulting in an overarching belief that the season’s play has been mediocre. The Kansas City Chiefs are tied for the best record, representing a city with less than half a million citizens. Conversely, the league’s largest media markets in New York, San Francisco and Chicago all have teams that sit at the bottom of the rankings. Although league parity makes for entertaining matchups, ratings are dependent on the success of its teams with the biggest fan bases.
Even with declining ratings, the NFL is still by far the most highly-watched professional sports league in the nation. Many of its current dilemmas are temporary and the league still dominates the recreational time of fans every Sunday. However, the league must adjust to how its younger fans consume its media through options, such as online streaming packages and customized team distribution channels. It must also figure out how to promote rising stars in smaller markets so that their teams can command equivalent ratings.
The bottom line is that the NFL needs to make live-streaming a Jaguars-Colts game more appealing to experience-driven millennials than a Sunday afternoon spent at the beach or browsing Netflix.