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The NFL can’t blame Trump anymore: It is facing a ‘structural decline in viewership’

Turns out pro football is just like regular TV, after all: Ratings were down 12 percent during the regular season, and even more during the playoffs.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback No. 5 Blake Bortles is sacked by a New England Patriots defensive lineman. Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via 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.

Last year, when, the NFL’s TV ratings fell, analysts and the Pro Football Industrial Complex generated many reasons to explain the drop: Donald Trump. Tom Brady. A bad schedule.

This year, a lot of those problems went away. And NFL ratings still fell. They were down 13 percent for the regular season, while playoff games were down 12 percent to 20 percent, per MoffettNathanson:


You can caveat these numbers a bit, if you’d like: The “Sunday Night Football” telecasts were hurt this year because there were two fewer games in the schedule, while the “Monday Night Football” schedule lost a single game. And many of the NFL’s most popular teams — Dallas, the New York Giants, Green Bay — had miserable years or didn’t make the playoffs, which didn’t help.*

But there is always going to be flux in the NFL — that’s the nature of live sports. The real answer is that the most popular thing on TV is like everything else on TV — it has a harder time attracting eyeballs, because people are doing things instead of watching TV.

Pretending that the NFL — or live sports in general — is immune to the same trends affecting everything else on TV isn’t tenable anymore.

In analyst Michael Nathanson’s words: “The NFL is experiencing a structural decline in viewership, and it is going to be an issue!”

It’s going to be an issue for the NFL, since TV networks that have been bidding ever-increasing amounts to show live games may pull back, at least from some of the packages the NFL offers.

The NFL has been hoping that digital bidders like Amazon, Facebook or Google will step in to goose prices. And they might! But it’s harder for them to get excited about a declining asset.

It’s a bigger issue for TV in general — because TV has increasingly become the NFL. Last year, regular season NFL games and related content accounted for 66 of the 100 most popular shows on TV.


If two-thirds of your most-popular stuff is in structural decline, then you’re in structural decline. Getting bigger may help you survive, but it won’t turn things around.

* MoffettNathanson, like most sober analysis of NFL ratings, doesn’t blame the ratings decline on the Trump/Kaepernick/anthem controversy, since there’s zero evidence people actually tuned out for that reason.

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