Ratings Deflategate: Why the NFL is down this season

This company is turning football helmet design on its head
This company is turning football helmet design on its head

The NFL is the biggest ratings powerhouse on TV, but so far this season even the mighty football league has found itself watching its ratings fall.

Through the first two weeks of the regular season, the league's premiere game, NBC's "Sunday Night Football," is down 12% in viewership compared to last year; ESPN's big game, "Monday Night Football," is also down 12%; and CBS' first "Thursday Night Football" game fell a whopping 26%, according to Nielsen data.

Even with these declines, the NFL is still bigger than most everything else on TV. Through two weeks, NFL coverage on all networks is averaging 18.3 million viewers. To put that into perspective, the season six finale of "The Walking Dead" brought in around 14 million viewers.

But that average is still down from 20.1 million viewers over the same time frame last year, which is concerning to networks and anyone else banking on the future of linear TV -- because if the NFL isn't immune to ratings drops, what is?

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Experts and observers say there's good news for the league, the networks and everyone depending on them, though: the league's viewership is likely still healthy. It's just that even healthy people catch a cold now and again.

Billie Gold, vice president and director of programming research at Amplifi, the global buying arm of media company the Dentsu Aegis Network, said it's the lack of big games and prominent names that has sacked the league the past two weeks.

"This season there have been fewer marquee match-ups early on, while some prominent NFL superstars are missing from the limelight," she said.

For example, NBC's Thursday night kickoff game was a Super Bowl rematch between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. That might have been a big draw -- but Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning retired after the Super Bowl, and his replacement this year is Trevor Siemian, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2015, and whose only appearance in a game last year involved him taking a knee to end a half.

Then on NBC's opening Sunday night match up, the Arizona Cardinals took on the New England Patriots without Tom Brady, who is suspended for four games due to "Deflategate."

On top of the quarterback problem, the NFL is also competing with the presidential election, which has brought in big viewership for the last year.

The competition between the two will come to a head on Monday night when ESPN's "Monday Night Football" will go up against what could be one of the most watched presidential debates in history.

Then there's the matter of the NFL having to compete with the sheer size of itself.

For example, NBC's three games so far this season are down 12% -- but that's by comparison with last year, which saw the best viewership for the NFL's broadcast primetime package in 22 years.

And not every NFL broadcast has seen a decline. CBS' second Thursday Night Football game on Thursday night between the Patriots and the Houston Texans was up 4% from the same game last season. And Sunday games, which represent the bulk of the schedule, have seen smaller declines -- the ones broadcast on CBS are down only 5% while ratings for Fox's Sunday games are roughly unchanged from last season.

"The NFL is still the most watched program on TV," Gold said. "But this year the ratings seems to be experiencing their own Deflategate."


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