NFL ratings drop not cause for panic just yet, analyst says

Thursday Night Football's Sept. 15 matchup live streamed on Twitter
Image: NFL/Twitter

Although a double-digit ratings drop for what had been one of the last erosion-proof sources of broadcast and cable programming is a concern, MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson has cautioned media investors “not to read too much into a month of data and extrapolate a new trend” for NFL audience performance. 

“Looking back at the last five years, NFL ratings on a [compound annual growth rate] basis have been relatively flat over time with variability in any given year, including a 5 percent drop in 2012-13 and a 7 percent decline in 2014-15,” he said.

Through four weeks of games, ESPN’s Monday Night Football is down 17 percent in adults 18-49. NBC Sunday Night Football was down 13 percent entering last night’s game, while CBS Thursday night game was down 15 percent. Notably, daytime coverage on both CBS and Fox are down only 3 percent. 

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Mirroring consensus speculation on the cause, Nathanson cited election coverage – ESPN’s Monday Night Football game on Sept. 26 was disrupted by the election. But other prime-time games have simply been uninteresting blowouts that had tough matchup comparisons to the year-ago period. 

For example, the moribund Thursday night game on Sept. 29, featuring a mediocre 2-3 Cincinnati Bangles team easily handling a crummy 1-4 Miami Dolphins squad 22-7 compared to an overtime thriller on Thursday, October 1, 2005, between the perennial playoff contenders Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

Of course, for stakeholders like 21st Century Fox, Disney/ESPN, Comcast/NBCUniversal, CBS Corp. and even Twitter, Nathanson acknowledged that there are “real risks” for media companies who have collectively invested billions of dollars in NFL rights. For the 2015-16 TV season, which included the Summer Olympics, the NFL accounted for 19 percent of the gross ratings points for CBS, FOX, NBC and ESPN. 

For more:
- read this MoffettNathanson report (sub. req.)

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NFL ratings shortfalls have networks scrambling for make-goods, advertisers ‘scratching their heads’
NFL enduring unprecedented double-digit TV ratings drops this year
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