After years of soaring NFL ratings, the current 2016 season has attracted significantly lower viewership throughout the first half of the season.
In an attempt to explain the decline, NFL officials, experts and fans have offered many theories, including outrage over Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest, the distraction of the presidential election and characteristics of the game itself.
The presidential election spectacle serves as a distraction
A memo sent to the NFL’s Media Committee in October seemed to place a bit of blame on then-presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, citing “unprecedented interest” in the presidential election as a reason for the ratings decline. A few fans can attest to that.
The fact that I’m generally more excited for a presidential debate than any of the @NFL‘s prime time games should be a concern.
— Jonathan Glover (@glovertrain) October 19, 2016
Low key excited for tonight’s Presidential Debate instead of MNF. 🙄
— ScottieTarantino (@scottie2k11) September 27, 2016
— Joseph Hutchinson (@JLeedsHutch) October 9, 2016
With the election cycle being unlike any other, it’s certainly possible that it distracted NFL fans from the games. The first presidential debate, which happened on Monday, Sept. 26, overlapped with the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints Monday Night Football game.
A game like this — a high-scoring 45-32 shootout between two division rivals — would typically see stellar ratings. However, the game astonishingly garnered the lowest viewership from any Monday Night Football game this season with only 8.0 million viewers. The debate, however, received an average of more than 80 million viewers across 13 channels — the most watched debate in U.S. history.
Quality of NFL games declining
Another potential contributor to the NFL’s ratings issues has been the perceived lack of good competition, and a lack of league-wide talent, according to Turner Sports reporter David Aldridge.
“I believe that the NFL’s ratings are directly tied to the fact that they don’t very have good quarterbacks league-wide right now,” Aldridge said at a sports symposium at the University of Maryland last month. “What did we have Sunday? We had four really good quarterbacks.”
The four really good quarterbacks he’s referring to are Ben Roethlisberger, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. When those players’ teams played each other, ratings increased, which ESPN sportscaster Scott Van Pelt touched on at the symposium.
“It’s no coincidence that you have Pittsburgh, Dallas, Seattle, New England [in Week 10]. Both games featured 7 lead changes, and sun of a gun the ratings were good,” Van Pelt said. “And then it turns into post-election — it’s not post-election. There’s teams people like and they played good football games and they didn’t have to watch Brock Osweiler suck.”
His sentiments might hold some validity. Primetime NFL ratings have been significantly higher the past few weeks, which may be due to close finishes in two of the aforementioned games, an overtime showdown between the Chiefs and Broncos, and down-to-the-wire Thanksgiving matchups with the Lions versus the Vikings and the Cowboys versus the Redskins.
In fact, the Cowboys-Redskins game was the most watched regular-season NFL game in FOX television history.
The presidential election and the quality of games are just a few of the potential reasons for the NFL’s early-season ratings decline. Some fans have other grievances with the NFL they think may be hurting the league’s image.
Colin Kaepernick contributing to ratings decline?
One theory popular with social media users is that San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest has angered viewers enough to quit watching the NFL.
NFL Ratings Continue To Tank and NFL Can’t Figure Out Why – Blue Lives Matter
Kaepernick SINGLE HANDLY KILLING NFL
— Dave Jones (@mdj17) November 10, 2016
The NFL letting kaepernick and others do that crap is what’s killing the ratings
— Michael Barnes (@MichaelB926) November 14, 2016
Eroding NFL ratings due to only 1 thing – Colin Kaepernick and his fellow anti-American idiots disrespecting the flag. Bye bye NFL!
— PolitixGal (@PolitixGal) November 13, 2016
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t buy the Kaepernick theory though, telling reporters in October that the quarterback’s protest doesn’t have anything to do with lower ratings.
“We don’t think that’s a factor,” Goodell said, “and our network partners don’t either.”
NFL Network Chief Correspondent Andrea Kremer agreed, discrediting the Kaepernick theory by drawing comparisons to NBA coaches’ rhetoric about social injustices in this country.
“Greg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy come out with incredibly compelling and strong sentiments about things that are going on in our country politically and … [NBA] ratings are going up,” Kremer said at the symposium. “So I just don’t buy the political rhetoric as being a reason.”
Fans lack interest in the ‘No Fun League’
Another issue fans have with the NFL, or “No Fun League” as some jokingly call it, is their crackdown on sharing highlights on social media and their strict celebration policies.
NFL ratings continue to plummet despite the self imposed ban on Twitter GIFs. It’s almost as if decreased fan interaction hurts, not helps.
— Jeremy Igo (@CarolinaHuddle) November 8, 2016
But please @NFL, keep limiting each team’s social media accounts, because clearly it’s the GIFs and highlights that are killing your ratings
— Jason Barfield (@jasonbarfield) October 24, 2016
Van Pelt isn’t a fan of this highlight-sharing ban either.
“It’s idiotic,” he said. “I just don’t understand what world you live in where you think that people sharing content on social media is a bad thing.”
Deadspin and SB Nation, two sports websites that often share GIFs and highlights, had their Twitter accounts temporarily suspended after the NFL complained to Twitter about their use of licensed game footage.
The NFL is also gaining notoriety for its strict celebration policies adopted in 2013. Though the NFL has been cracking down on celebrations for more than 30 years, it seems to have reached the tipping point for some fans.
I hate the NFL taunting calls or flag on TD celebrations it takes all the fun and interest away then wonder why ratings going down.
— Manbeast Morris (@3d1Manbeast) November 13, 2016
I wonder if anyone at the NFL has said, “Maybe we should bring back end zone celebrations…” when they look at the ratings.
— Kyle Michael (@CaptainAntibody) November 14, 2016
— Kyle Beals (@Kbeals1015) November 18, 2016
“If you’re going to fine Vernon Davis for pretending to shoot a basketball — which he got fined 12 grand for — then you should penalize the officials whose incompetence cost the Buffalo Bills three points at the end of the first half against Seattle,” Van Pelt said.
NFL games are too time-consuming
It seems fans are also getting fed up with the length of NFL games. The average game time in 2015 was 3 hours, 9 minutes and 26 seconds, according to The Oregonian, which was about 4 minutes longer than the average run time in 2014.
3+ hrs to play 1 hr of game time, too many commercials, and awful/inconsistent officiating. This is why @NFL ratings are down.
— Shan Caruso (@schman_317) November 13, 2016
Problem with NFL ratings is scheduling bad and meaningless matchups; 2 many commercials 2 often; too many penalties; bad officiating
— Teri DeLoache Tanner (@terideloache) November 15, 2016
@NFL too many commercials, too many reviews and too many penalties = a terrible viewing experience. This is why your ratings are down
— Rodney Street (@Rodney_Street) November 13, 2016
These longer games are partially due to the NFL’s new rules about reviewing touchdowns and interceptions, but as Van Pelt added, advertisements are playing an increasingly bigger role in this as well.
“You cannot continue to have touchdown, extra point, commercial, kickoff, commercial. It makes the live-viewing experience impossible. And it’s why nobody watches anything but the RedZone.”
NFL on the rebound?
Whatever factors were affecting the NFL’s ratings through the first half of the season seem to be inconsequential now, as ratings are back on par with previous years.
So maybe the NFL isn’t doomed after all, which is what ESPN President John Skipper has been trying to convince his viewers.
“I’m not worried,” Skipper said. “The reason sports will continue to thrive is the popularity of sports, the passion of fans, and the value of sports to marketers and to distributors has never been higher,”
And maybe the NFL’s ratings could be even higher if kickers stopped missing their sub-30 yard field goal attempts.