Even With Everything Going Right, The NFL Is Still Struggling

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The 2017-2018 NFL Divisonal Playoffs featured an extremely exciting set of matchups (with one notable exception).  The Eagles-Falcons game came down to a 4th down play on the goal line with 1:05 remaining.  The Jaguars-Steelers game saw the heavy underdog Jaguars take an early lead on the Steelers in a high scoring shootout.  And in the most exciting game, the Saints-Vikings matchup came down to the very last play, with the Vikings scoring a touchdown to win it all, and the two teams trading the lead four times in the last three minutes of the game.

Importantly, something else did not occur this weekend – National Anthem protests.  Having reached a “deal” with the NFL Player’s Association, the number of NFL protests has dropped sharply, and to my knowledge, no player conducted any form of Anthem protest whatsoever for the Divisional Playoffs – a far cry from near-constant kneeling and sitting which occurred earlier this season.

In short, the NFL had everything go right this past weekend, which the league surely welcomed as a much-needed change from a lackluster on-field product coupled with players injecting politics into entertainment.

Unfortunately, the viewers did not agree.  As Awful Announcing reported, this year’s Divisional Playoffs made new lows in viewership, even for the top matchups:

  • Saturday afternoon’s Falcons-Eagles game on NBC drew a 17.4 overnight rating, down 5 percent from last year and 12 percent from 2016. It was the lowest for the early Saturday time slot since 2009.
  • The Patriots-Titans matchup Saturday night on CBS was the lowest-rated game of the weekend, with a 16.6 overnight. That was down 9 percent from last year and 18 percent from 2016 and was also the worst performance in that window since 2009.
  • The Jaguars-Steelers contest in the early window Sunday on CBS pulled a 20.4 overnight, down 12 percent from 2016. (Last year’s game in that slot was moved to primetime due to weather.) That was the lowest mark in its window since 2002.
  • Finally, the Vikings-Saints duel Sunday afternoon on Fox drew the best overnight rating of the weekend (21.8) but was still down 23 percent from last year and 17 percent from 2016.

Overall, this will reportedly be the lowest rated divisional weekend since 2009.

If exciting games and a lack of protests can’t turn around NFL ratings, what is next for the league?

More importantly, what is the cause of the NFL ratings decline?  Is it the on-field product, or is it the Anthem protests?  And, if the cause can be identified, can the league be saved?

As I previously noted, the NFL is facing a number of headwinds at the moment, before you even consider the protests.  They are included, but not limited to; cord cutting, excessive commercial breaks and TV timeouts, lack of accessibility, quality of play and the on-field product, and the aforementioned National Anthem protests.  Notably, cord cutting and accessibility are intertwined, as I have previously pointed out:

So a lot of those viewers who might put the game on TV on a slow Thursday night have decided that they would rather not pay for the option in the first place.  While a majority of these are likely the most fickle fans of all, who care little about sports, the NFL has made it increasingly difficult to view its product either with or without cable access (for instance, offering out-of-market games via DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket only).  The NFL’s own actions regarding viewership has certainly led cord-cutting to play a major role ratings decline.

If exciting games and a lack of protests can’t pull viewers back, either A) the protests have already made a noticeable dent in viewership, and many viewers haven’t “forgotten” what the players did earlier this season, or B) the ratings decline is merely continuing an existing trend down in viewership which would be ongoing with or without the protests.

Given the league’s existing headwinds, it is difficult at best to assign all of the blame for this year’s steep ratings drop to the protests alone.  However, it is without question that the protests have had at least some effect on the NFL’s viewership. If an exciting Conference Championship weekend and Super Bowl can’t draw viewers back, the NFL will be in serious trouble.

Even though the league may have “conceded” to President Trump‘s demands for players to stop kneeling…

…it may have been too little, too late, to save the NFL from a major decline in viewership and revenues.  The National Anthem protests might be the nail in the coffin for an NFL which may very well have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.