President Donald Trump, and the people who support him, love to take credit for driving NFL ratings down, but the facts tell a completely different story. The rise of the #MAGA movement, and the alternative reality where Trump and the FOX News Channel audience lives has inspired a "facts don't matter anymore" narrative, but the data and numbers simply don't care about that popular misnomer.
NFL ratings are plummeting due to supply and demand, and emerging economic forces in a rapidly changing media landscape. There's nothing partisan, political or even ideological about this. It's all business, not personal. Don't blame Colin Kaepernick or Marshawn Lynch.
The NFL ratings slide actually began in 2016, long before Trump tweeted out about it or the protests became covered by mainstream media.
Dom Caristi, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University, says the NFL ratings problem lies with the three Ds — dilution of audience, decline in viewers of traditional television and divided audiences.
By divided, we mean segmented across multiple channels and viewing devices, not ideologically divided. According to Nielsen, total viewership of NFL games has fallen by 7.5 percent compared to the first six games of the 2016 season.
“The NFL ratings decline has absolutely nothing to do with protests or presidential tweets,” says Caristi, a member of the university’s Digital Policy Institute. “NFL ratings are lower for the same reason most other television ratings are down.”
Dilution of the product, or too many football games, is the first major problem, he says.
“Sure, there are some diehard NFL fans who want to watch only the NFL, but for many casual viewers, college and professional football are nearly interchangeable,” Caristi says.
“It’s not just the increased availability of NFL games but also increased college game availability. At the height of the season, football fans can watch seven days a week. At some point, the audience is diluted by so many games.”
Another factor is declining numbers of people are watching television.
“Television – whether sports, dramas or game shows – just doesn’t have the allure it once had. The industry has less audience overall.”
Caristi also points out that not only are fewer people watching television, but also their attention is divided because of the increase in the number of channels.
"Ratings have declined because there are so many more viewing choices. The audience is fragmented more than it’s ever been. Streaming media makes it possible to watch virtually anything – current TV show or movies from 50 years ago. “TV” competes for audience with all forms of streaming video, including YouTube, Netflix, etc."
This has given rise to "cord-cutting," a slang term used to describe people abolishing their cable packages. The expansive proliferation of channels has increased costs, and an easy, effective way for people looking to save money is to cut the expense of a full-service cable bill.
It's interesting that NFL ratings have become a major national topic of discussion in 2017, because it really isn't an area that people out of media and media should actually care about.
Is there really that much general interest in ratings, for people who work outside these specific fields? I asked Caristi.
"Not really," he responded.
"Ratings were exceedingly relevant in a linear world with few choices. Netflix doesn’t care about ratings."
"They operate on a subscriber model. They care that there is something every subscriber wants every month, so subscribers keep paying the monthly fee. They’re not ad driven, so if viewers only watch them 2 hours a day or 20, it doesn’t change anything."
This is a truth that the television networks, so obsessed with aggressively pushing out their narrative regarding positive NFL ratings numbers (i.e. network PR consistently e-mail blasting journalists their selective data), desperately need to hear.
The actual Nielsen numbers are routinely published and frequently reported on, despite only a niche audience having genuine interest in this topic.
So why do PR flaks even bother trying to publicize cherry picked numbers when the real data is already out there?
"That’s like asking why fast food restaurants don’t mention the obesity epidemic in their ads," Prof. Caristi answered.
"The information is out there, but when you’re trying to sell a product (whether that’s burgers of TV ad slots) you accentuate the positive. Promotions people get paid to promote."
When you put it that way, the truth finally becomes clear: TV Network Media Relations=an Ad sales department.
As a journalist who has suffered many years being a recipient on TV network media distribution lists (ESPN is by far the worst, as their volume is so heavy, but NBC Sports is terrible too, as their list is the most asinine and pointless, but all of them are terrible) I now realize today that I have been looking at this incorrectly.
They are not interested in providing news, or inspiring/facilitating news coverage of their network. They see us as nothing more than just a means to help trigger more ad buys. It's not a "press release list," it's simple spam.
Once one realizes this simple Wu-Tang Clanism of truth (C.R.E.A.M. "Cash Rules Everything Around Me") it becomes clear why it is so difficult for so many people to just accept that protests during the National Anthem aren't tanking NFL ratings.
Similarly, many people can't simply accept that ESPN's decline in viewership, and therefore revenue, is due mostly to cord cutting, and overpaying for broadcast rights. Instead they try blaming it on the political opinions expressed by on-air talent.
Looking at it for what it actually is- dollars and sense, red and black on financial ledgers isn't compelling. It's reality, but it's not what the media, nor the people who believe they're "taking a stand" by tuning out want to think about themselves and NFL ratings in general.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and the Tribune corporation blogging community Chicago Now.
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