The first half of the 2017 NFL season proved beyond a doubt, that the NFL’s ratings crisis couldn’t solely be chalked-up to the presidential election of 2016. Writing in Pro Football Talk, Mike Florio makes the case that the second half of 2017 could be even worse for the NFL, for that very same reason.
As Florio notes, the NFL’s ratings steadied somewhat in the second half of the 2016 season because many viewers who had been distracted by the election, returned. With no such post-election bounce in the offing this year, the league’s already sagging numbers would likely decline further in the second half of 2017.
With the final eight weeks of the regular season beginning tonight, there’s no reason to think this year’s troubling trend will change, because there’s no reason for people to return to following football after the various debates and town halls and other political shows and specials that sucked people away from watching football before November 8, 2016. And with, as Darren Rovell of ESPN noted on Wednesday, total ratings are down 5.5 percent through the first nine weeks of 2017 in comparison to the first nine weeks of 2016, the absence of a post-election bounce means the gap is about to get bigger.
It’s unclear what the NFL can do on the fly to avoid that. It’s unclear whether the NFL is trying to. One solution would be the aggressive use of flexing to ensure that the best games will be played in the biggest Sunday spots, rules that limited flexibility be damned.
Florio concludes, “Creativity will be needed to fix this one, and it needs to be applied not after the season ends but in real time. For a league that has grown accustomed to smooth sailing and ever-rising numbers, there may be no mechanism in place for dealing with this kind of crisis. There should be; otherwise, the other kinds of crises the league is confronting will continue to take precedence.”
In truth, some of the root causes of the NFL’s ratings woes are out of their control. We seem to be on the front edge of a societal shift, in which people no longer feel like surrendering an entire day to watching football games. In addition to the fact that people just seem to be watching less and less television in general. So some of what ails the NFL can be rightfully laid at the doorstep of market factors.
However, let’s not get carried away. Plenty of what ails the NFL can also be rightfully laid at the NFL’s own doorstep.
The anthem protests, which Papa John’s John Schnatter rightfully observed should have been “nipped in the bud” from the beginning, certainly can’t be considered a problem beyond the NFL’s control. The increase in penalties, which stalls momentum and elongates games, certainly isn’t something beyond the NFL’s control. And the fact that offseason workout and practice regimens have become so limited and watered down that players aren’t prepared for the start of the season; and consequently don’t start playing well until about Week 10, is also something not beyond the NFL’s control.
Could the NFL arrest their ratings descent in one fell swoop? No. However, they could open a large parachute which would greatly slow their descent while they figure out the market factors that have threatened their business model.
They simply refuse to do it.