By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Ratings are down in the NFL, and everybody’s got their theories as to what is the root cause. Some are more valid than others.
But the problem in trying to diagnose the issue is that there is no one answer. No singular catastrophe can be pinpointed as the ground zero for the ratings decline, as it’s more of a blend of multiple factors that really has gone against the NFL through these first two months of the season.
Here is my brief summation.
This was inevitable. It had to happen. A sports league can only dominate the ratings so much before it eventually comes down. The gains had to stop at some point.
In some ways, the NFL can’t be faulted for believing it could schedule literally any of the 32 NFL teams for any prime-time matchup and still draw massive ratings. The people at the NFL believed this because we essentially told them it was true. Even a Jags-Titans game in recent years would draw huge ratings, which probably led to some laziness when figuring out that daunting prime-time schedule. This will likely be adjusted next year following this year’s wake-up call.
Thursday Night Football
It’s not good football. If it were good football, the league wouldn’t need to concoct some phony “color rush” gimmick to try to get people to watch. Players are not recovered from Sunday’s bruises. Game plans are simplified. And because every team must play a Thursday game, the matchups often stink. The average margin of victory in Thursday night games this season is 14.4 points. It is — largely — unwatchable.
While very few people might actually turn off their TVs as a form of protest over DeflateGate or Bountygate or the failures of Roger Goodell and the league office in properly addressing players who commit acts of domestic violence, there is no doubt a mental toll that is taken from so much nonsense constantly surrounding the league. It might only be a small number, but there must be people who (in the middle of a dreadful 49ers-Bills game) start to question why they’re wasting their time watching this league. Team owners can thank Roger Goodell, largely, for the air of deceit that emanates from the league.
Roger Goodell telling the world on Wednesday that the NFL stands firmly against sports gambling really says everything that needs to be said about the way the NFL operates. The league treats its viewers and consumers as if they’re idiots. It’s a continuation of the way the league ignored concussions for years. Now, player safety is a priority, yet known dirty players get away with dirty play, Cam Newton gets his face bashed in on national TV, and players around the league still drop like flies every week, and nobody from the league says boo. They think you’re dumb. You’re finally starting to prove them wrong.
This problem has been apparent to some of us for a few years, but the issue is that despite the league’s insistence that parity exists, very few teams are actually Super Bowl contenders. It’s the same teams in the mix every year. It’s a Haves/Have Nots league, and the bad teams are bad. Meanwhile in a related story, this week the 1-5 Chicago Bears will play their third prime-time game in a six-week span.
Peyton Manning Is Gone
People liked to watch this guy play football. I haven’t heard his name mentioned much when folks discuss the drop in ratings, but his absence definitely plays a significant role. Networks used to fight every November to get the big Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown on their air. Even last year, when he threw with his right arm the same way most NFL quarterbacks would throw with their left arms, people had to tune in. His games had a special feeling about them. Now? Trevor Siemian throwing 5-yard outs in the final minutes of a game while his Broncos trail by two scores is not exactly captivating television.
Tom Brady Was Suspended
TV networks know that in order to sell games to viewers, you need stars. One inhibitor to that goal is when the league spends $10 million and two years trying to paint their biggest star as some sort of criminal over something that never mattered before in the history of sports. Whoops. Fact is, more people seem to hate Tom Brady than love him, but they all can’t help but tune in when he’s on their television screens. At least the country was treated to that rousing Jacoby Brissett vs. Houston Texans experience.
The NFL felt that it had perfected its product in the United States so much that it went ahead and started making international plans in England, China and Mexico. It’s necessary only from the perspective of a corporation in a capitalistic society that must always find a way to increase profits, no matter how high those profits might already be. But from a football perspective, it’s completely unnecessary. And it makes little sense to force this complicated, clunky sport onto cultures that don’t care much to embrace it. Yet, the NFL persists and seems intent on setting a team in London permanently.
The league has a bad reputation for being a corporation that would prefer its “stars” to be nameless, faceless, and above all, replaceable. Throwing 15-yard penalties for the most harmless of celebrations doesn’t do anything to dispel that perception.
Officials Dictate Too Much
In the very first game of the NFL season, the Carolina Panthers trailed the Denver Broncos by one point in the final minutes. Carolina faced a fourth-and-21. The odds were long, and when Cam Newton threw incomplete, the game was lost. But wait! A flag. A penalty on Chris Harris for giving a shove to a wide receiver resulted in a five-yard penalty and, more importantly, an automatic first down. That is preposterous and it goes against the entire premise of what football is all about. There’s a reason that many sports fans have lost respect and appreciation of the NBA, and it has a lot to do with touch fouls. The NFL at times treats such fouls even softer than the NBA, which should never be the case.
To be sure, there are some other reasons. The car-crash element of the presidential election has certainly stolen some viewers from various games, and there’s no doubt a fringe collection of outspoken flag protectors who are so appalled by Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest that they’ve stopped watching football altogether (even though national anthems are almost never aired on Sunday afternoon games).
But add it all up, and it’s simply been difficult for the average NFL fan to get excited about watching 10 hours of football every Sunday. The league is just having trouble filling up its 15-to-18-hour window every week with captivating programming. Any league would; it’s just a new problem for the NFL.
Realistically, ratings will likely fluctuate a bit going forward this season, with some weeks seeing an increase and others seeing a drop. The NFL is not a sinking ship, and the folks in charge are not running around the deck with buckets of water to try to bail it out. It’s merely taking a hit right now, but the fact is that the multi-billion dollar monolith can withstand it.
What this year’s ratings will do is provide a wake-up call to the NFL that the league is going to need to try harder. The days of blindly putting two teams down on a schedule and setting ratings records are over. But that will, presumably, result in the NFL’s leaders strategizing a plan this coming offseason to map out a better plan of how to maximize viewership and, thus, advertising and TV revenue going forward.
And now, for some quick hit picks on many games you don’t want to watch:
GREEN BAY (-7.5) over Chicago
Los Angeles (+2.5) over New York Giants (London)
Oakland (+1) over JACKSONVILLE
Baltimore(pick ’em) over NEW YORK JETS
Indianapolis (+2.5) over TENNESSEE
PHILADELPHIA (+2.5) over Minnesota
KANSAS CITY (-6.5) over New Orleans
Cleveland (+10) over CINCINNATI
MIAMI (+3) over Buffalo
Washington (+1) over DETROIT
San Diego (+6.5) over ATLANTA
New England (-7.5) over PITTSBURGH
Tampa Bay (-1) over SAN FRANCISCO
Seattle (+2) over ARIZONA
DENVER (-7) over Houston
Last week: 7-6-2