NFL’s viewership verdict: Ratings are down 7% over two years, and the trend is not good

The NFL’s TV numbers were down 9% in the regular season and 6% over three weeks of playoffs, analysts said. Image: NFL

With the regionally beloved New England Patriots completing a stunning 25-point rally to win Super Bowl LI, we can now draw some definitive conclusions on an NFL ratings slump that inspired panic in the pay-TV ecosystem all season long. 

Sure, ratings rebounded after the election. But with overall viewership down 7% over the last two seasons, the trend line is a concern. 

RELATED: Super Bowl ratings down slightly from last year's game

According to MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson, the NFL’s TV numbers were down 9% in the regular season and 6% over three weeks of playoffs. Sunday’s Super Bowl attracted 111.9 million viewers, off slightly from the 114.5 million who turned in two years ago for New England’s last Super Bowl appearance. 

All season long, Nathanson and other analysts cautioned investors that it was too early to draw conclusions. But now the season is over. 

“In fact, the NFL’s ratings definitely improved materially post-election as the average declines improved from -12% to -5%. So, in this light, the NFL can claim relative victory,” Nathanson said. “However, our review of the data suggests that there are some deeper troubling trends to consider.”

Chief among those concerns, the analyst said, is the performance of games in prime time. 

The impact in prime time was most felt, with ratings down 13% for Monday Night Football, 11% for Sunday Night Football and 9% for Thursday Night Football. Over the last two seasons, ESPN’s Monday night franchise is down 15% in viewership.

For pay-TV, “the impact that the NFL has on live viewing is staggering,” Nathanson said, noting that FOX gets 59% of its ratings points for live viewing from the NFL in months when the league is playing. The number is just above 25% for NBC, CBS and ESPN.

“Then there is the retransmission money, helped by the airing of these must-have games, which could reach above $2 billion for some broadcast networks by 2020,” Nathanson added.

Notable are the licensing fees being paid by media companies to the league. Disney/ESPN is on the hook for $1.9 billion a season through 2021, and FOX will pay an average of $1.1 billion a year through 2022. CBS will pay $1 billion a season for Sunday-afternoon rights through 2022 and is splitting a $925 million-a-season bill with NBC for Thursday night rights. In addition to its $465 million half for Thursday nights, NBC is paying $960 million a season for Sunday-night rights. 

UPDATED: A previous version of this story listed the wrong analyst behind the MoffettNathanson report.