NFL enduring unprecedented double-digit TV ratings drops this year

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Research conducted on behalf of SportsBusiness Daily has found unprecedented double-digit audience declines for NFL games so far this season. 

According to research firm CivicScience, NBC’s Sunday Night Football — the highest rated prime-time program for the last five years — has seen its average audience drop 10 percent so far this year after four games.

Viewership of the NFL’s widely dispersed Thursday night games has dropped 15 percent. And ESPN’s Monday Night Football is down 19 percent. 

It’s not fringe science — culling Nielsen data, Sports Media Watch has the NFL’s ratings pretty much down across the board through the first four weeks of the regular season. 

It’s hard to elicit panic from media executives just a quarter of the way through the NFL regular season, but the implications could be huge. Popularity of NFL programming has grown quickly as most other shows have seen their audience succumb to new consumption patterns. And the NFL now operates with impunity. 

"You never like seeing a competitor getting a part of what you do, but such is the NFL,” CBS Corp. chief executive Moonves recently lamented to investors after the league made CBS share its Thursday night games with NBC and Twitter. “They’re the 800-pound gorilla, and when the NFL says 'jump,' you say, 'yes sir.’"

But the possible ramifications go beyond the NFL.

Not only did NBCU experience double-digit ratings declines for the Rio Olympics, Major League Baseball and NASCAR have all seen significant ratings drops, too. And the NCAA men’s basketball championship game experienced record low viewership. 

“All these sports go through cycles,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior VP of global research and analytics, said to SportsBusiness Daily. “It’s impossible to suggest that there’s anything going wrong here, particularly in light of the fact that we are in a really odd year in terms of the protracted presidential race, which has captured the attention of Americans going back a year now. Plus, it’s an Olympic year, which clearly had an impact during the summer.”

For his part, Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of programming and research, says sports ratings have dropped in previous presidential election cycles. Notably, cable news networks are experiencing double-digit ratings increases. 

“I would really start with the election — I don’t think you have to look much deeper than that,” Mulvihill said. “Cable news has been up so much all year, going back to the earliest primary debates. So much of a share of attention has gone to the campaign, it seems like it has affected everything else.”

For more:
- read this SportsBusiness Daily story
- read this story from The Verge

Related articles:
Dish ends blackout with NFL Network with multi-year carriage deal
Moonves: NFL coming to CBS All Access in ‘not-too-distant future’
Twitter secures the NFL's much sought-after Thursday night streaming rights

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