BY Mike Gastineau 04:19PM 10/13/2016

Changing habits lead to NFL TV ratings decline

The NFL’s TV ratings are in a tailspin this year, startling owners and administrators. Reasons are numerous, but there is one reason the NFL doesn’t like to talk about — over-saturation.

NFL games everywhere: How much is too much? / DirecTV

The top story around the NFL is the concern about falling TV ratings. They are down on Sundays in early slots and afternoon slots, as well as feature games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights.

Two points before we go further:

First, NFL games still dominate their time slots, and while viewer numbers are down, the percentage of people watching games when the NFL is on shows pro football is still a broadcast behemoth.

Second, Seahawks fans can be pardoned for shaking their heads in bewilderment.

Seahawks football is still a winner in Seattle ratings-wise, and will remain so as long as the team stays good. But we’re talking national numbers here. Even if we talked local, you don’t have to go too far back to find a time when the Seahawks were average and their TV numbers reflected that fact (good, but not as robust as now).

The “12s since ’12” crowd finds this hard to believe, but the Seahawks were 23-41 from 2008 to 2011 — not the kind of team you planned your day around.

Declining ratings has everyone in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s administrative army sitting at their desks at full attention. The NFL isn’t a pile of leaves that will blow away in a windstorm, but given the cash involved, an 11 percent decline is a substantial audience loss.

Various reasons are being offered. The presidential election, like it or not, is the kind of gross public spectacle easy to condemn but hard to look away from. Ratings for the debates prove that.

There’s also the quantifiable rise of “cable cutters,” former cable TV subscribers who decided that the growing mass of on-demand, streaming entertainment is far better than appointment TV via cable or satellite.

Some analysts say athlete activism regarding the deaths of African Americans from police shootings is a a turn-off to some in the audience.

There’s no one answer that would explain the kind of drop (11 percent across the board and as high as 40 percent in younger demographics). But let’s add three more reasons.


Once upon a time (about a decade ago), the NFL had three weekly TV windows: Two Sunday (early and late afternoon) and one Monday night. The league added a Sunday night window.

Then they added eight Thursday games. Then they added eight more Thursday games.

They also added Sunday morning windows this year for a record four games aired from London. That number is expected to rise. In a little more than a decade, the league has doubled the amount of national TV windows. Then there’s the NFL Network.

This is classic broadcast management thinking. If three is good, six is better. But in many cases (news magazine shows, reality TV, 24-hour news networks) over-saturation leads to viewer erosion.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted this outcome two years ago.

“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Cuban said. “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. When you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule number one of business.”

There’s simply too much NFL everywhere. TV networks affiliated with the league have year-round daily shows that grind every detail into sand. Same thing happens on sports talk radio. The NFL takes up a huge percentage of the real estate in dwindling print media.

The cumulative effect can lead to information overload, which might lead some fans to conclude that if the NFL is available 24/7 on multiple platforms, then nothing, including games, is must-see. Missing a game becomes akin to missing a bus. Another one will show up soon enough.

Fantasy football

It’s only a slight exaggeration to state that everyone is playing fantasy football these days. It’s almost quaint to remember that until about a decade ago, the NFL ignored fantasy football. Now, there are several league-sanctioned TV shows dedicated to fantasy. The league’s own website (as well as dozens of other sites) has a fantasy football game.

There’s little question that the huge growth of fantasy football has changed how many people watch. More fans (the majority?) now are concerned less with which team wins and more with which player scored, how he scored, and the length of the touchdown or field goal. In no way is this meant as criticism, but the impact fantasy has had on viewing habits is indisputable.

Nothing underscores that fact more than the invention of the NFL’s own Red Zone channel, which is dizzying to watch as viewers are whipped around from stadium to stadium to see every score as it happens. Watching Red Zone feels like being on the old carnival ride, “The Scrambler.” The view changes so relentlessly that’s it’s tough for the brain to process.


There’s so much information about NFL games available through personal electronic devices that there’s simply no reason to stay tethered to a TV set. Where fantasy leagues once had to wait until Monday’s newspaper to tally up scoring plays from Sunday games, fans now have access to every NFL score in real time. Whether you’re a fantasy player or just a fan of a team or the game, it’s easy to set up alerts via phone so you feel as if you’re never missing anything. Since there’s several hours of post-game highlight shows available on several different networks, you aren’t.

Cuban’s point from two years ago looks good now. But time will tell if this is the start of a drastic drop in broadcast popularity — a slaughtering of the hog, as Cuban would have it — or simply a natural adjustment. Because fixing the ratings shouldn’t be the NFL’s goal.

The league bosses need to accept the fact that fans consume football differently than they did a generation ago. That’s the real reason ratings are falling.





  • I agree with the analysis, but think you are leaving out one huge factor, related to over-saturation. The games have become so bloated with ads, TV time outs (more ads) and endless play review delays that I find watching them live literally equivalent to watching paint dry. I record the games I’m interested in and blast though the commercials and replay reviews. I’m pretty sure that for people without DVR’s the satisfaction level of watching live broadcasts has declined in line with the bloated commercialization and reviews. Who wants to spend nearly 4 hours watching a 60 minute game that has only about 12 minutes of live action?

    • ll9956

      I definitely agree as to the commercials. The most obnoxious instance is 2-1/2 or 3 minutes of commercials after a TD followed by 10 seconds for the kickoff followed by another 2-1/2 to 3 minutes of commercials. Absolutely disgusting!

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    • Kirkland

      Five TV timeouts a quarter, plus the two-minute warnings. If you think that’s bad at home, try sitting through them at the stadium.

    • Effzee

      Also agree. Its totally the commercials, the over-marketing, the over-saturation, etc. I don’t consume commercials any more. Haven’t used a TeeVee device in 10+ years. Whatever few shows I watch, I watch on the network sites online, and use an ad blocker. If the site doesn’t allow ad blockers, I just don’t watch the show. And, I watch whatever pro and college games I want every week. If you’re interested, there are ways to consume the NFL, NCAA, etc., commercial and politic-free. ;-)

      The people claiming its because of politics or whatever are in such a minority that they are pretty much irrelevant to the issue. Sure there’s a tiny portion of petty, fearful people who react emotionally to surface level things that don’t actually effect them in any personal way. They are pretty loud about it, too! You’d almost think they mattered. Thankfully, they are obsolete models, and we will be free of them soon enough.

  • Tonic99

    (Mike Gastineau, now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. A long time. Admittedly, though, I haven’t been on this website a ton.) I have never been in favor of regular Thursday night games. Maybe for the first 8 weeks, or some kind of truncated schedule. Nor am I in favor of expanding the regular season to 18 games or more. The product itself is at risk of getting damaged as more and more players run into the injury bug and have shortened careers. And as a fan I prefer the NFL to be like a candy treat, rather than a enormous meal that never gets digested.

    (I’ll attempt to correct Mike on one thing, we’ve had Sunday Night Football since 1987 when it was on ESPN.)

    I think the quality of TV coverage has decreased over the years also. I used to be able to tune into an action-packed hour-long show called NFL Primetime, which in its current form is shadow of its former self. Now we get snoozefest TV like Football Night in America, where the action is secondary to the propping up of TV personalities and opining and speculating about absolutely everything. And I used to be able to tune into a bevy of NFL Films after the games ended on Sunday night, and frequently throughout the week also. These are both exciting and educational, and I wonder how the current day fan gets educated about the NFL’s past. How else could I have become a huge Johnny Unitas fan from way out here in Seattle? Now we get asinine “Countdown” shows on NFL Network. I suppose NFL Timeline and A Football Life are good attempts, but just lack the fun factor of straight up NFL Films.

    It is like the NFL has tried to distill the “action” of the game down to highly controlled, for-profit windows, and in the meantime have boring commentators dominating the TV shows all week long. I guess my overall point is, it is not just over-saturation, but the lack of the things that we should be saturated with. The inspiration and drama has been replaced by fantasy chats, intense arguments about political statements, and controversial conduct. See talking head after talking head after talking head opining about Odell Beckham throwing his helmet into a net just doesn’t do me any good. Maybe I’m alone here, but as much as I love the NFL, I do agree the the product at large has some issues.

    • Kevin Lynch

      Really miss Merrill Hoge and Trent Dilfer on Primetime. They were the best pair of analysts ever.

  • Kirkland

    Many think the, uh, “unusual” presidential election is a big factor, as the ratings for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have boomed. Let’s see if the ratings pick up after the vote.

  • ReebHerb

    My interest started waning a few years ago with the TD celebrations and sack dances. NFL focus does not point to my demographic. Seahawk players have a right to hate their country. I have a right to tune out.

    • Effzee

      Wait. Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, etc., hate America? I didn’t pick up on that. Proof, please?

    • Tman

      What exactly is your demographic?

    • I agree with sack dances being idiotic. Oh, you did the job you get paid to do and now you’re going to dance around like you just won a Smart Car on The Price is Right? It’s like plumbers dancing around when they unplug a toilet like it’s some major accomplishment.

  • rosetta_stoned

    Keep whistling past the graveyard.

    There are far more people than you’re willing to admit who have had enough of the NFL’s politics. Cord cutting has been going on for some time. Saturation might be an issue if the huge drop hadn’t happened just this season. And there are presidential elections every four years. Was there a ratings drop in 2012? 2008? No.

    I haven’t watched a single second of any game this season and that’s not going to change until the NFL gets back to playing football. And just football.

    • Effzee

      The only thing this does is result in less enjoying of football for you. So, really, its your loss. The “far more people” you refer to are far fewer in number (and far less relevant) than they think they are.

      • ReebHerb

        Football is enjoyable for its own sake. It’s not enjoyable to pay someone to throw rocks at you. I don’t knowingly pay for waitresses to spit in my food either.

        • Effzee

          But who is spitting in your food here? If you read Baldwin, Sherman, etc., words they clearly state their love for country, etc. They are very clear about what they are and are not saying, if you’re interested. They are saying nothing divisive, nothing along party lines…. Exactly what are you interpreting as some kind of personal attack?

          • ReebHerb

            Didn’t mention these two players. They should pick a different venue for their left wing views. Baldwin did lose me on the Bowel Movement end zone celebration. I enjoy football; not so much freak shows.

          • Effzee

            You didn’t mention these players, but you did say that the Seahawks players hate their country. That’s a big, broad statement. I’m just asking how you know this? Back up your statement, man.

  • Buggy White

    Also, Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, B.J. Raji, Marshawn Lynch, and several other well-known players who gave fans a reason to watch ‘their’ teams all retired. Go Huskies!

  • WestCoastBias79

    There’s also the issue that the prime time games have been terrible. For example, this week we had Denver/San Diego on Thursday, have Indy/Houston on Sunday Night, and MNF is NYJ/Arizona. While some of these matchups might have looked good in the preseason, they now decidedly do not. There hasn’t been a good prime time game since week 1. I’m a football junky and have been put to sleep by the last few weeks.

  • Tman

    Good article… fails to mention how boring TV is 24/7..320 channels and nothing on but mindless sports, tv preachers, talking heads, content free series, county council meetings and gong show/jerry springer style political coverage staged for clicks and ratings instead of informing the public.

    TV is the worst buy in the family budget..Second only to cigarettes.

    And there is this..a loss of faith because the outcomes appear to be rigged by the gambling interests.

    And many great runs, pass plays and pileups on the 50 yard line can you witness before you have seen it all?

  • jafabian

    Watch. The owners will use this as a reason to add another night game thinking they need more air time. They’ll als demand new stadiums and a new commissioner.

  • Hard to argue with a lot of that. The internet has begun to displace television in a lot of ways. And, quite frankly, parking your butt for 2:45 of commercials and inane analysis (It depends on the spot) and 15 minutes of the ball actually being in play has gotten to be just a tad irritating for a lot of folks. I still put up with it for Seahawks games. Here’s a Life Hack for you, though: DVR the night games on about a 30-40 minute delay. If you start watching 30-40 minutes after the kickoff, you can take a break whenever you need one to make a sandwich, go to the bathroom, fetch a beer and then you can fast forward past all the ads and the halftime nonsense, and actually just watch about an hour and a half of football.