Panic is probably too strong a word, but there's definitely a great deal of concern at the highest levels of the NFL over a significant decline in national television ratings.
There should be.
This is the continuation of a trend. It also is much harder for the league to attempt to rationalize than the big TV ratings hit it took in 2016, when questions were raised about whether America's most popular sport was losing some of its mojo.
As one NFL official told me at the league's fall meeting in New York earlier this week, last year's dip in viewership carried the widely accepted caveat of happening during an election year. And it wasn't any election year. It was one that captured America's conscience like no other in recent memory. The league saw it as a given that politics would pull eyeballs away from all other forms of TV programming, including the one that seemingly was indestructible: live NFL games.
This year is different. The official couldn't help but shake his head about the 7.5-percent drop in national ratings through the first six weeks of the season. Sure, he said, there was Hurricane Irma's impact on Week One, knocking out power throughout Florida and causing viewers throughout the country to choose storm coverage over football.
But the next five weeks? They don't come with any tidy explanations. The inescapable truth is that fans are tuning out. Again. And in ways that make league executives and club owners and everyone else with a stake in the NFL take notice.
That some fans, especially younger ones, prefer tuning in on smartphones, tablets and laptops rather than televisions is of minimal consolation. The bulk of the billions of dollars the NFL takes in each year comes from the mega millions the major networks pay for the right to broadcast the games.
Networks justify those fees on the strength of what they receive from advertisers that base the value of commercial time on the size of the TV audience. As the audience falls, so do the corresponding bottom lines.
And it isn't only on a national scale. Most NFL teams are seeing a drop in local TV ratings from a year ago, according to Albert Breer of the TheMMQB.com. Breer reports that 25 of 31 clubs fall into that category and 19 have seen a decline of five percent or more. (The Los Angeles Chargers were excluded because they're in their first season in a new market, although fan support at 27,000-seat StubHub Center -- their temporary home as they wait for a new stadium to be built -- has been virtually non-existent. The L.A. Rams are also experiencing the NFL's worst decline in attendance since their move from St. Louis a year ago).
What has to be most disturbing to the league is that three of its elite franchises are showing a loss of viewers locally: the New England Patriots (eight percent), Dallas Cowboys (seven percent), and Pittsburgh Steelers (six percent). The picture gets even uglier in the No. 1 TV market, with the New York Jets down a staggering 37 percent and the Giants seeing a seven-percent drop.
The Buffalo Bills are down about three percent from where they were after five games in 2016. However, except for a slight drop in ratings for Thursday Night Football, Buffalo is bucking the national trend with increases in viewership for Sunday night and Monday night games. Ratings for games not involving the Bills on Buffalo's CBS and Fox affiliates are also up.
Unfortunately for the NFL, this isn't exactly one of its more highly coveted TV markets.
What's driving viewers away?
It would be fair to point to the pushback from players kneeling and otherwise protesting during the national anthem -- which began last year and rekindled after incendiary comments and tweets from President Trump -- as a factor, perhaps even the primary one.
Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged as much in a news conference at the end of the fall meeting, a large portion of which was devoted to discussion about how to move away from protests and toward ways players and the league can address social issues that both sides agree prompted the protesting.
"We know how important this is to our sponsors, our partners and our licensees," Goodell said. "It's important to us, also, so we all share that and we certainly are in great contact with them. They understand the issues. We want to make sure they understand what we are doing and if they can help us, we want them to help us in those issues."
“There’s no question this had an impact on the business,” Giants owner John Mara told reporters. “But this is an important social issue. And sometimes you have to put the interests of the business behind the interest of issues that are more important than that.”
There are other factors hurting the NFL's popularity, such as:
*Injuries to some of its biggest stars. The loss of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone takes away a major TV draw. Resale prices for tickets at perpetually sold-out Lambeau Field have dropped 50 percent since Rodgers' injury, according to a Green Bay television station. Season-ending injuries to two other highly popular players, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (ankle) and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (tibial plateau fracture), aren't helping the ratings cause, either.
*Negative perception of the league's handling of its players dealing with the long-term impact from concussions. Goodell was asked at the fall meeting about the concussion lawsuit filed on behalf of the late Aaron Hernandez and the accusation that the NFL is not informing its players about the risks of concussions. "There has been a great deal of focus on this issue of brain trauma," the commissioner said. "We've been through a great deal of litigation on this issue, and settled a major case on concussions. We will let the lawyers handle that."
*Growing complaints about officiating. It isn't simply that game officials are getting calls wrong, but even when they get them right, the officiating overseers at league headquarters are either making or influencing what appear to be unsubstantiated reversals. Case in point was the Jets' touchdown-turned-touchback, when an apparent score was somehow ruled a fumble out of the end zone, that proved pivotal in their loss against the Patriots last Sunday.
Then, there was the bizarre finish to the Oakland Raiders' 31-30 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs when there was another controversial reversal of a touchdown and penalties on both teams that kept delaying the outcome.
On top of that, the NFL Referees Association saw fit to react to multiple media reports pointing out that in their last four games when Pete Morelli has been the referee, the Philadelphia Eagles have been penalized 40 times while their opponents have only drawn eight penalties. After New England's loss to Carolina earlier this month, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady pointed out that referee Jerome Boger and his crew call "much more penalties on us than the other team.”
“Claims like these demonstrate a fundamental lack of knowledge about NFL officiating,” NFLRA executive director Scott Green said. "…The passion of NFL fans and teams are a big part of what makes the game so great. However, it’s no excuse for the irresponsible and baseless claims we’ve seen lately. NFL officials are committed to upholding the integrity of the game and do so every week.”
Although home and road teams have an even split in victories of the 92 games played through Thursday night, road clubs have enjoyed some rare sustained success. In five of the first six weeks this season, for instance, road teams won at least seven games. But history isn't on the side of visitors. Home teams have held the edge every season since the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1970. Week 5 was the best for road teams so far this year, with 10 of 14 coming away with victories. However, home teams excelled in Week 3, going 11-5.
- If any NFL player has a good reason to complain about how disruptive traveling to London can be, Adrian Peterson is that guy. Thanks to the trade that sent him from the New Orleans Saints to the Arizona Cardinals, he's about to become the first NFL player to participate in two London games in the same season. It was less than three weeks ago that Peterson was a small part of the Saints' victory against the Miami Dolphins. Consistent with a minor role that made him unhappy, he only carried four times for four yards. Now, after rushing for 134 yards and two touchdowns in the Cardinals' 38-33 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, Peterson is back across the pond as Arizona takes on the Rams.
- However, the loudest public complaint about the NFL's London series comes from Rams running back Todd Gurley, who told reporters, “They need to stop this, all this stuff. This London, this Mexico City stuff, it needs to stop. It's cool playing over there, don't get me wrong. Just more of the long week, messes up a bunch of people's schedules. I'm pretty sure you (the media) want to be in your bed right now, too. But no, it's all good. It'll be love. The fans over there are great."