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The NFL’s TV ratings tanked in 2016, but this year’s preseason numbers were up

Then again: No Olympics to compete with this year.

New England Patriots quarterback #12 Tom Brady throws a pass in a pre-season football game against the Detroit Lions.
A Patriots/Lions preseason game
Gregory Shamus / Getty
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.

Pro football TV ratings dropped significantly last year. But the NFL and its TV partners argued that it was a one-time dip — and not because pro football was suffering the same fate as the rest of TV.

Are they right?

Mmmmmmaybe: Preseason ratings for the NFL were up 5 percent this summer, notes Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar. And they would be even higher — up 13 percent — if last Saturday’s Chargers-Rams game hadn’t been competing with the Mayweather/McGregor stunt/fight.

So maybe last year’s dip really was because of the presidential election. Or because Tom Brady wasn’t playing for a bit. Or because Colin Kaepernick kept kneeling. Or because some of the games sucked.

On the other hand, Venkateshwar notes, last year’s NFL preseason ran up against the Summer Olympics, so 2017 ratings ought to be higher than 2016.

The main argument you hear from NFL types about last year’s dip is that the ratings aren’t what they seem and that the NFL is more popular than ever. They’ll point out that the “reach” for last year’s games actually increased — that is, an additional five million viewers watched at least some portion of a game last year.

The problem, according to this argument, is that they’re not watching long enough. So if the games get better — and/or other TV competition, like the Trump Show, falls off — things/ratings will improve.

I still find it hard to believe that the forces that have pushed down TV ratings across the board — in general, the proliferation of internet-connected time-suckers like Instagram and Snapchat; and specifically, the boom in non-TV video options like Netflix and YouTube — somehow don’t affect pro football.

But we’ll see.

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