The final numbers for the NFL regular season are in, and television ratings were down, sharply, for the second straight season, with a 9.7% decrease in viewership in 2017 after an 8% drop in 2016.
As noted by The Wall Street Journal, there are several explanations for the NFL’s declining business on television, ranging from people upset at players taking a knee during the national anthem (which is hardly ever televised anyway, and which became less prominent of an issue as the season went on), to the league oversaturating the TV market from Thursday through Monday, to the NFL finally being dragged down by the industry-wide struggle to keep people watching television.
The last of those holds the most water, especially with the fact that, “Despite its falloff, NFL programming still accounted for 33 of the top 50 programs on TV in 2017, according to the league.”
The biggest problem that the NFL has might just be that the product stinks. The Jaguars are the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs, behind the two actual good teams in the conference, the Patriots and Steelers, yet in October, Jacksonville’s championship hopes were lampooned on the NBC sitcom “The Good Place.” Granted, the show features a lot of Jacksonville jokes, but it wasn’t as if this gag in particular was written in the summer, then fell as a dud because the Jaguars were unexpectedly awesome: they just happened to be not godawful in a division that featured two truly terrible teams in the Colts and Texans, and a Titans team that snuck into the playoffs despite being outscored by a total of 22 points for the season. According to Pro Football Reference, the Jaguars played the easiest schedule of anyone in the NFL on their way to going 10-6, a record that some years doesn’t even get teams into the playoffs.
On a weekly basis, the NFL foists garbage matchups upon large swaths of America because there simply are not enough good games to fill every broadcast window. When there’s actual good football to watch, people watch. The Patriots-Steelers game last month, which wound up deciding home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs, brought CBS its biggest football rating since 2015. The previous week, Fox had its highest-rated game of the season when the Eagles and Rams, two of the four-to-six actually good teams in the NFC, squared off.
But even those games highlighted two big problems with the NFL in 2017. The Patriots’ victory over the Steelers came after Pittsburgh was denied a touchdown in the final minute because nobody knows what a catch is anymore. The Eagles’ win in Los Angeles included a season-ending ACL tear for quarterback Carson Wentz, which, while not a brain injury, still served as a reminder that football chews up and spits out human bodies like no other sport we have.
Now that the playoffs are here, we’ll get three weeks of quality matchups that people want to watch, then a week off before the Super Bowl, which for all the problems in the television industry, remains a behemoth. The NFL’s championship game has a seven-year streak of doing at least a 45 rating and 69 share, with the price of a 30-second ad rising from $2.8 million in 2010 to $5.002 million last year.
The NFL has a lot of problems, some of which may not be fixable. Every football game is televised on a network, so there’s no rigging the schedule the way the NBA can to get the best possible matchups on, beyond flexing a few games to prime time. Games are not going to start taking less than three hours. Television viewing habits in general are out of the NFL’s control. The sport itself still has the nasty existential crisis of maybe killing the people who play it. Yet, the Super Bowl remains the crown jewel of the television year and the NFL remains the top sport in America. With all the red flags about the future, the present is not as bleak for the league as it can be made out to be by two years of downward-trending television ratings.