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NFL ratings were down all season, and there’s no reason to think they’ll get better next year

Football was down 9 percent during the regular season and 6 percent during the playoffs.

AFC Championship - Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Patrick Smith / Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

It doesn’t matter who wins the Super Bowl tomorrow. The NFL and its TV partners have already lost.

Pro football ratings were down throughout the last season. That’s a troubling data point for the TV Industrial Complex, which has viewed live events — and live NFL games in particular — as the last wall of defense against the internet and other competition for eyeballs.

When ratings first dropped last fall, the NFL’s defenders cited a number of different possibilities for the decline: Competition from Trump-infused debates and other election coverage; particularly crappy games; and the absence of big stars, including Tom Brady.

And sure enough, once the election was over and the games got better and Tom Brady came back, ratings did improve. The Packers-Cowboys playoff game last month, for instance, drew 48.5 million viewers — a record number for a divisional playoff game.

But even with all of that improvement, NFL games still lagged. Pre-election, ratings were down 12 percent over the previous year. And after the election — and including the playoffs — they were down 5 percent, MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson notes:

Add it all up and overall ratings were down 9 percent through the regular season and down 6 percent for the playoffs, Nathanson calculates.

But maybe comparing the 2016 season to the 2015 season isn’t completely fair. Recall that the 2015 season was also the year of the daily sports fantasy bubble, when Draft Kings and FanDuel spent a gazillion dollars promoting the NFL (turns out that strategy wasn’t a great idea, and now Draft Kings and FanDuel are a single company).

But even if you compare 2016 ratings to 2014 ratings, the NFL is down. Nathanson “stacked” 2014 and 2015 ratings and ended up with a 7 percent decline for the regular season and a 10 percent decline for the playoffs.

Sure, this could be a temporary blip and NFL ratings could come back next year. But there’s really no reason to think that.

It’s much more logical to assume that NFL ratings, like all other TV ratings, are under pressure because audiences have many more choices -- Snapchat, Facebook, Clash of Clans, etc. — and they are using those choices.

The argument that live events or live sports or the NFL are immune to that pressure seems like wishful thinking from industries that have bet many billions on that theory being true.

But! That doesn’t mean NFL games aren’t incredibly valuable to TV networks — in part because of the pressure on overall ratings. Even a weakened NFL dominates TV ratings, so if you want to reach a truly mass audience, NFL games are still the go-to choice for advertisers.

And when the next big NFL TV contracts start rolling over in 2021 and 2022, you will certainly see bidding from big digital players like Amazon and Google/Alphabet, who will want a piece of that audience themselves.

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