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Volume 23 No. 13
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NFL audience this past season all a matter of perspective

NFL executives have identified more than 25 possible reasons why the league’s TV ratings dropped this season. Since early in the season, I have been focused on one: I believe the overheated presidential election is the main reason to blame for the declines.

Now that the NFL season is behind us, I posed that theory to Fox Sports’ Mike Mulvihill — the person who knows as much about NFL TV ratings as anyone in the business as the network’s executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy. Mulvihill responded with the following column that says my theory is not complete. While the election negatively affected the NFL’s TV ratings, so did the growing amount of TV windows that schedulers need to fill. The NFL had 14 more TV windows this year than just eight years earlier.

Mulvihill wrote the following response:

The heart-stopping Super Bowl LI that marked the fifth-best audience in U.S. TV history earlier this month was a microcosm of the NFL season. The arc of the game — a lopsided first half, followed by a thrilling second half and unprecedented overtime — mirrored a trend that saw ratings for television’s most popular programming fall sharply in the season’s first half, then rally through the later stages. In the end, both the Super Bowl and the regular season reached more people than ever before, but average viewership for both was off compared with last year. With the season over and the Lombardi Trophy again back in Foxboro, we can take a final look back at the year’s closely scrutinized NFL ratings to see what drove the numbers and discern what they suggest for next season.

“The ratings declines that were the subject of so much speculation were never about fans abandoning the NFL. Rather, the declines were about a growing pool of fans spending less time with the games each week.”
— Mike Mulivhill, Fox Sports
From the first week of the season, the most essential fact in understanding NFL viewing was that more people watched NFL games this season than in 2015. This was true early in the season, became even more true later in the year, and stayed true through the Super Bowl. Nearly 203 million people watched the 2016 NFL regular season across all networks, a gain of roughly 5 million over the 2015 season.

That simple fact implies that ratings increased this season, but because viewership statistics are a function of both the number of people watching and the amount of time they spend viewing, the math becomes more complicated. In this case, the number of people watching the NFL increased, but the average amount of time spent watching the league declined. The result was a decrease in average minute audience for every NFL rights holder.

That distinction was lost on many observers. It is absolutely critical to understanding what happened during the season. The ratings declines that were the subject of so much speculation were never about fans abandoning the NFL. Rather, the declines were about a growing pool of fans spending less time with the games each week.

What caused fans who were still interested in the NFL to spend less time watching games? The answer is obvious in retrospect. The presidential campaign commanded so much attention through the season’s first half that it drew some viewing away from the NFL. Look at total minutes viewed — a metric that has become the best tool for looking at content across networks and across media. Total minutes viewed for the entire league was down 13 percent through the season’s first nine weeks — the weeks prior to Election Day. Following the election, though, total minutes viewed dropped by less than one one-hundredth of a percent through the regular season’s last eight weeks. That is a stunning turnaround that clearly identifies the election as the biggest factor affecting the numbers.

The early-season viewership declines opened the door to a barrage of theories about what was affecting viewership. Most of these theories do not hold up under closer examination.

Many observers pointed to the national anthem protests initiated by Colin Kaepernick as a possible turn-off. But the fact that more people watched the NFL this season than ever before — and that ratings surged following the election — dispels the possibility of a boycott being a primary factor.

Another popular theory was that viewers migrated to the RedZone Channel. While I don’t dismiss the popularity of the RedZone Channel, the fact that the declines were more acute for the prime-time packages than for the Sunday afternoon packages that compete with RedZone puts a damper on this theory.

A third theory was that commercial clutter drove viewers away. But our commercial loads were unchanged from recent record-breaking NFL seasons. A remarkable 98 percent of live Fox NFL viewers stayed tuned in during commercial breaks this year. That figure matches both 2015 and 2014.

We also tracked on-the-field trends this year and saw no meaningful difference between 2015 and 2016 in length of game (one minute shorter), margin of victory (one point closer), points per game (same as 2015), penalties called and accepted (fewer), and replay reviews (fewer). If anything, the leaguewide trends suggest a slightly more compelling product on the field in 2016.

The one theory not related to the presidential campaign that appears to have merit is the idea that the NFL’s inventory of 256 games is being stretched thinner than ever. There were 110 NFL television windows this season, the most ever and an increase of 14 new windows since 2009, primarily through added Thursday night and Sunday morning London games. In a league where only about a quarter of the games in any given year will match two teams with winning records, that presents a challenge. For the networks most heavily invested in the success of the NFL, the hope is that the strength of the league’s most popular teams — the Cowboys, Packers, Steelers, and Patriots all enter 2017 as defending division champions — will provide enough high-quality supply to meet this expanded demand. I’m confident that come fall, in a calmer news environment (a little help here, please, Mr. President?) NFL ratings will grow again and the league will remain clearly the most powerful content in all of media.

Mike Mulvihill is executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy for Fox Sports.