SBJ/Nov. 18-24, 2013/Media

What do the NFL’s rising ratings reflect? The Teflon shield

John Ourand
If ever there were a year when the NFL’s TV ratings should be down, it should be this one.

The league is suffering through what seems like an off-field scandal each week, its traditionally highest-rated teams are having off years and the continued popularity of NFL RedZone should be diluting TV ratings.

But just like the past several years, NFL ratings are up across the board. The shield is proving to be stronger than Teflon.

The past couple of weeks alone have been filled with stories that shed a bad light on the league and could have diminished interest in the games:

Hall of famer Tony Dorsett revealed that he has developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of playing football.

Dwayne Bowe, a wide receiver for the undefeated Chiefs — one of the league’s feel-good stories this year — was charged with possession of marijuana, and Vikings wide receiver Jerome Simpson was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

Allegations of racism and bullying in NFL locker rooms were a main topic on national news shows.

SBJ Podcast:
John Ourand & Austin Karp
on the strength of the NFL on television

These stories came on the heels of Bountygate, the concussion settlement, murder charges against the Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez and the preseason lockout in 2011.

The amount of bad PR surrounding the NFL gives the feeling that football is a sport in decline. But that feeling is just that — a feeling. It is not supported by facts, at least not when it comes to television.

NFL TV ratings continue to climb in the face of these off-field problems. Through the first nine weeks this season, the league has averaged an astounding 18.4 million viewers a game on CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC. That figure is up 5 percent through the same period last year.

None of the league’s network partners has seen NFL ratings drop through the first nine weeks this season. NFL Network (up 8 percent) and Fox (up 7 percent) have posted the biggest gains.

By all appearances, the public can’t get enough of the NFL. Even the networks’ pregame shows are showing a healthy bump from last year. Through nine weeks, only CBS’s “NFL Today” was down, and its drop was only 5 percent. The league’s TV ratings performance has been more impressive this season than any other one that I’ve covered.

I wouldn’t have been surprised to see viewership drop this season — and not just because of the league’s off-field issues. The league’s most reliable TV juggernaut — the NFC East — is awful this season. At our deadline, no team was over .500 and it looks like the first team to eight victories will have a good chance to win the division.

Other teams that deliver traditionally high ratings are having less-than-stellar seasons, including the Pittsburgh Steelers and the two teams representing the country’s biggest media market, the Giants and Jets.

You could make the argument that sports fans are suffering from scandal fatigue and simply don’t care about off-field shenanigans. After all, MLB has emerged from its steroid era with relatively flat TV viewership.
You also could make the argument that all these off-field problems are increasing interest in the sport.

As I ate dinner with a friend on Monday night, a TV showed NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross on ESPN discussing the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation. I’m not sure that’s the ideal way to lead into a game, but it certainly helped create interest around a relatively weak contest.

How strong is the NFL today, in the midst of all these controversies? Networks already are jockeying to bid on an eight-game package that may (or may not) be available next year.

Sources say that Fox, NBC and Turner, in particular, are interested in such a package and that the NFL should bring in upward of $700 million a year from such a package.

And DirecTV is negotiating to keep its exclusivity on its Sunday Ticket package, demonstrating how strong an association with the NFL is.

“Being linked with the NFL helps us from a marketing standpoint differentiate ourselves from the competition,” said DirecTV’s chairman, president and CEO, Michael White, at SportsBusiness Journal’s media conference in New York last week. “It’s been really positive for us.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

Return to top

Related Topics:

Media

Video Powered By - Castfire CMS Powered By - Sitecore

Report a Bug