September is here and broadcast networks are counting the hours until the NFL season begins on Thursday night.
After a season of anxiety in 2016, when ratings fell a collective 8% from 2015, broadcasters are hoping for a rebound in 2017. A new report from Barclays predicts NFL ratings “could be an important catalyst for broadcasters this year.” (Even more than usual, apparently.)
For evidence, the report points to an uptick in preseason viewership. The preseason has averaged 2.8 million viewers in 22 games aired to date, up 5% over last season. It may have been up by double digits if the Rams-Chargers contest hadn’t had to air opposite the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. Preseason ratings should be taken with a large grain of salt. For one thing, it’s the preseason. For another, the Rio Olympics dominated television last summer, making comparisons easier for this year’s slate of games.
Barclays also points out that NFL games should benefit from the lack of election coverage this season. While it was blamed for a lot, the election clearly overshadowed the NFL at times, especially in certain prime-time slots. Yet Donald Trump’s victory last November and subsequently tumultuous initial months in office have altered the overall TV landscape. If political news breaks during a game, a percentage of viewers may be induced to flip away to Fox News or MSNBC.
Still and all, on a revenue basis, the networks have continued to grind out yardage, with ad revenue reaching $4.22 billion last year. As it is with their diminished prime-time schedules, which deliver a fraction of the ratings they did a decade ago but continue to spur demand from advertisers, the NFL resists disruption.
While there is ample reason for optimism, one storyline in the NFL causing concern is the protests of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Amid widespread protests of police shootings last year, he took to kneeling during the national anthem, outraging many (including the league’s owners, evidently, since he remains unaffiliated even as inferior quarterbacks get snapped up from the waiver wire).
Surprisingly, CBS Sports chief Sean McManus gave credence to the view that viewers were tuning out en masse because Kaepernick and a few other players who followed, weren’t saluting the flag.
During NFL Media Day, McManus said CBS had done internal research that revealed it was on the minds of viewers. “That is a reason that’s mentioned by a fair amount of viewers,” he said. “It’s something they don’t find attractive or they don’t find compelling in coverage of the football game. How big a factor it was? I don’t really know.”
Mike Mulvihill, executive VP of research, league operations and strategy, disagrees. NFL games last year had a bigger reach, he points out, and a gain of 5 million in the total amount of viewers who caught any amount of the regular season. “That is in conflict with the idea of a boycott,” he told Sports Business Daily. “If there was really a meaningful boycott going on, you’d see reach go down. And we didn’t.”