By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL continues to have a ratings problem, even as the league barrels toward the second half of the season and coverage of the presidential election is winding down ahead of Election Day. Monday Night Football once again took a ratings tumble year-over-year, as the Vikings-Bears Halloween matchup drew a 7.2 overnight rating, which is down 18 percent from Colts-Panthers in Week 8 of 2015 (8.8), according to Austin Karp of SportsBusiness Daily.
Sunday Night Football took a big hit as well, losing to Game 5 of the World Series in the Oct. 30 ratings battle by a margin of 15.3 to 11.6. It was the first time since 2011 that the World Series beat SNF in a direct ratings competition. The two programs also went up against each other in 2015, but the World Series-clinching win by the Kansas City Royals on Nov. 1, 2015 lost out to Broncos-Packers on SNF that night.
There’s no doubt that the 2016 World Series has some extra juice to it, as the Chicago Cubs have a chance to win their first World Series since 1908 while the Cleveland Indians have a chance to end their own 68-year drought. But even playoff baseball historically loses out to regular-season NFL games in primetime, which makes the World Series’ victory over the NFL striking.
The NFL has faced a flurry of negative off-field stories in recent years, including domestic violence and DeflateGate. Most recently, the national anthem protests led by Colin Kaepernick have sparked a backlash whose true size is relatively unknown. Domestic violence is also an off-field issue with baseball players, but a backlash to national anthem protests (and, obviously, DeflateGate) are problems that only exist in football.
Perhaps the piled-up bad publicity is finally catching up to the NFL – but it’s still not that simple.
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The actual games and the broadcasts also have lost appeal. The endless penalty flags and commercials have also turned off viewers, as has the actual competition. The Vikings are a good team, but the Bears are dreadful and are led by one of the least likable players in the league in Jay Cutler. Whether it’s the coverage of undesirable topics or the actual play on the field, the NFL has become significantly less watchable.
It’s even more complicated for ESPN, which has seen a precipitous drop in TV subscribers in recent months. Neilsen recently reported that the network had lost over 620,000 subscribers in just the past month, but the ratings measurement giant recently retracted the estimated numbers to investigate their accuracy after Disney execs strongly disputed them, according to Variety. The network has reportedly lost over 11 million subscribers since 2011, which is almost certainly at least a partial result of “cord-cutting” by younger viewers ditching traditional cable.
There are a large number of problems affecting primetime football, and now it’s losing out to on-field products that it routinely beats when put up against them. It’s hard to blame election coverage when baseball’s ratings have improved and even the NBA’s opening night saw a 10 percent improvement over last season.
Primetime football is no longer the most watchable product in fall sports. There may be too many issues to make the NFL’s ratings problem an “easy fix,” but the problem still exists, and it’s likely not going to magically disappear after the election.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.