Reimer: Maybe NFL ratings are down because the product is bad

Alex Reimer
September 11, 2017 - 2:45 pm

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In a memo last year, NFL executives blamed a “confluence of events” for the league's ratings decline. They largely attributed the decrease in primetime numbers to the contentious presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which sucked viewers to cable news networks in droves. Ratings increased once the election ended, lending credence to the theory. 

There are other hypotheses that explain the dip, depending on whom you ask. Right-wing pundits say national anthem protests harm ratings, even though those claims have been debunked. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some activists say they’re boycotting due to Colin Kaepernick’s continued unemployment. 

The NFL’s concussion crisis and myriad of off-field controversies might be driving away viewers, too. My colleague John Tomase says he didn’t watch any football Sunday, because he can no longer ignore the prevalence of CTE among ex-players. 

All of those reasons are valid, except for the silly caterwauling over players who kneel or sit during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” But the biggest explanation for the NFL’s ratings fall is probably the most obvious: the product is bad. 

Sunday’s action was atrocious, highlighted by abysmal quarterback play and empty stadiums. The Rams seemingly struggled to fill half of the 93,000-seat L.A. Memorial Coliseum for their opener against the Colts, despite claiming they sold more than 60,000 tickets. Roughly 385 miles north, it appeared even fewer people stuck with the 49ers, who lost to the Panthers 23-3. 

The two marquee games on the schedule, Seahawks-Packers and Giants-Cowboys, were low-scoring snoozefests. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson failed to eclipse 160 yards passing and Giants QB Eli Manning struggled to move the ball 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. The most notable portion of “Sunday Night Football” wasn’t the play on the field, but rather analyst Cris Collinsworth’s embarrassing effort to ignore Ezekiel Elliott’s domestic violence case.

Due to Hurricane Irma’s landfall, Nielsen won’t release Sunday’s primetime numbers until later in the week. But ratings for Thursday’s opener between the Patriots and Chiefs were down 10 percent in comparison to last year, even though Goodell was making his highly anticipated return to Gillette Stadium. 

Chiefs-Patriots was a slog that didn’t wrap up until well past midnight. It also featured numerous injuries, with Danny Amendola, Dont’a Hightower and Chiefs safety Eric Berry all exiting due to various ailments. Julian Edelman and Kansas City running back Spencer Ware were already ruled out before game time Thursday, and Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. missed “Sunday Night Football.” When star players get hurt, the quality suffers.

The excuses are already piling up to downplay the NFL’s disappointing showing Thursday. One common explanation is that Irma’s impending arrival drove people to the Weather Channel and cable news stations. While that makes sense on the surface –– those networks combined for a 6.4 national rating Thursday –– it’s also convenient. There will always be major news events going on. Political fervor might be at an apex in the Trump era, but other sports leagues aren’t taking hits in the ratings. This year’s NBA Finals were the most-watched since 1998 and Game 7 between the Cubs and Indians was the most-viewed MLB contest in 25 years. NFL playoff television ratings, meanwhile, were down for eight of 10 games last season. The Super Bowl, which featured the Patriots mounting a historic comeback, was the least-watched since 2013.

Last season, the average playoff point differential was 14.8. The games weren’t captivating, and if Sunday’s action was a harbinger of the foreseeable future, this year might not be any better. Quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Savage, Andy Dalton, Scott Tolzein and Joe Flacco –– all of whom started for AFC playoff contenders –– only completed 56 percent of their passes and threw up eight interceptions in comparison to just three touchdowns (Roethlisberger was responsible for two of the scores). 

The NFL has been a loathsome organization for some time. But now the product is no longer good enough to cover the league’s faults. The play is getting uglier, and there’s no easy fix.

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