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The likely leading causes of the NFL’s significant TV ratings decline

This NFL season began without one of the sport’s biggest drawing cards, Peyton Manning on the field (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
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The financial cornerstone of the NFL as it has grown into the nation’s most prosperous and popular sports league has been its network television deals. Pro football has been TV ratings gold, and the league’s handsome reward for that has been contracts with the networks now collectively worth an estimated $7 billion annually.

So when ratings for NFL games slip, even while remaining at comparatively lofty levels, it is noteworthy. Such is the case this season, with the sport’s overall TV ratings down about 11 percent from last season.

The average NFL game had drawn 16.7 million viewers this season through Week 4 of the 2016 season. Comparatively, last season Fox drew 20.75 million viewers on average for all of its NFL broadcasts, while CBS averaged 19.1 million, NBC averaged 22.5 million and ESPN averaged 12.9 million for Monday Night Football. According to Sports Media Watch, this past Sunday night’s game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers drew just a 10.2 overnight rating as it went head to head against the second presidential debate. That’s the lowest overnight rating since Week 8 of the 2013 season.

The 6.5 overnight rating for Monday’s Panthers-Buccaneers game on ESPN was the sports cable network’s lowest for a Week 5 “Monday Night Football” broadcast since it obtained those rights beginning with the 2006 season, according to SportsBusiness Daily. The game was decided on a Buccaneers’ field goal as time expired. But Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the reigning league most valuable player, did not play and baseball playoff games were airing on other networks.

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The 2016 average of 16.7 million remains a huge number. The Emmy Awards broadcast, by comparison, drew 11.3 million viewers. But the NFL is competing against its own success when it comes to television viewership, and this season’s decline is leading to a search for reasons.

That is not a straightforward exercise, industry experts say.

“We don’t really know,” said Neal Pilson, a former CBS executive and the founder of Pilson Communications, a consulting firm focused on sports TV. “I can’t give you a specific reason why the NFL’s ratings are down…. It’s very hard to find one reason. It’s not one thing. You have to look at five, six, seven things to figure it out. It’s a confluence of multiple negative factors.”

The factors include:

• So many choices: NFL broadcasts, like all other network programming, have faced increasing competition for viewers from the hundreds of channels offered by cable and satellite providers.

Now, more than ever, TV viewership in general faces ever-increasing competition from viewers who choose to watch video on other digital platforms, such as phones, and are not counted in the ratings.

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The NFL has acknowledged this trend, striking a deal with Twitter for online streaming of Thursday night games this season that also are televised by CBS and the league-owned NFL Network. But it remains a factor in TV ratings.

“It’s the digital age and you’re seeing the audience become so fragmented,” an executive with one NFL team said. “I think that’s what you’re seeing with the ratings. People consume the product so much differently now.”

• The election: Voters might not be particularly enamored with the choice they have to make between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the presidential election. But they are paying attention to such a close and fiercely contested campaign, and eyeballs on news programming cannot simultaneously be on a game.

“All programming is subject to this 300-, 400-channel universe,” Pilson said. “If you’re watching one thing, you’re not watching something else. I’ve been watching the Weather Channel all day. That means I’m not watching SportsCenter.”

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The NFL cites the election among the issues.

“The dip over the first month of the season is likely due to a confluence of factors headlined by the unprecedented attention around our Presidential election,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a written statement.

• No Brady or Manning: Legendary quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were the league’s biggest stars for more than a decade. Their rivalry was a major storyline for just about every NFL season during that span.

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This season began with neither player on the field. Manning retired following his Super Bowl triumph with the Denver Broncos last season. Brady missed the New England Patriots’ first four games while serving his Deflategate suspension.

The early stages of the 2016 season have been all about rookie quarterbacks, with Carson Wentz thriving with the Philadelphia Eagles and Dak Prescott having great success with the Dallas Cowboys while filling in for the injured Tony Romo. That might be good for the NFL’s future appeal to viewers. But for now, at least, the newcomers are not drawing cards on the level of Brady and Manning.

• Lack of big-market superpowers: The NFL’s entire business model, with its revenue-sharing among franchises and salary cap for players’ salaries, is designed to maintain competitive balance and prevent big-market teams from being able to beat their smaller-market cohorts consistently on the field merely by out-earning and out-spending them.

But Pilson points out that the teams in the league’s biggest TV markets—like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—don’t seem to be all that inspiring to viewers at the moment. Some NFL fans in L.A., he said, might have preferred the days when they didn’t have a local team and could watch a greater variety of other games.

“In the old days, we’d all put on the Cowboys and that would mean big ratings,” Pilson said. “I’m not sure they have that any more. In fact, I can tell you they don’t have that…. A dominant team is a ratings generator. And we haven’t had that.”

Ratings are down not only for the NFL but for a variety of sports, Pilson said. But he said the NBA might be able to avoid the trend in its upcoming season because of the appeal of LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors and James’s Cleveland Cavaliers will be staples of the NBA’s national TV schedule and should draw good viewership totals, Pilson said.

“In the NBA, you don’t see the bad games,” Pilson said. “They’re simply not on. In the NFL, they are on.”

Pilson said he dismisses any argument that the NFL’s ratings are being affected by any kind of fan backlash related to concussions or this season’s player protests during the playing of the national anthem.

“That one, I can discount,” Pilson said. “That’s not what makes people decide what to watch or what not to watch. Nor do parents make a viewing decision for themselves and their kids based on how the NFL settles its concussion lawsuits.”

McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of communications, said the league remains confident about its long-term appeal to TV viewers.

“NFL ratings have been on a tremendous run over the past 15 years, increasing 27 [percent] while primetime broadcast viewership has decreased 36 [percent],” McCarthy said. “Those gains have never been a straight line, and we’ve seen fluctuations from year to year and during the course of a season.

“No two seasons are the same, and right now we only have a snapshot of data. … The 2015 NFL season produced 63 of the top 100 television shows for last year and we’re confident that NFL games will continue to be the most valuable programming on television, and the best place for advertisers.”