Why Are Fewer People Watching The NFL So Far This Season?

Maybe it’s the lack of Tom Brady. Maybe it’s the election season. Maybe everyone’s out apple-picking instead of at home watching football. Maybe it’s because you’ve already cratered in your office fantasy football league because you invested too heavily in the Carolina Panthers? (Why are you looking at me like that?) Whatever the cause, fewer people seem to be watching pro football in 2016.

The Wall Street Journal points to Nielsen data that shows live NFL viewership is down 10% overall (on all networks) through the first four weeks of the season, with the Thursday, Sunday, and Monday night games seeing even bigger declines in viewership.

Given that the NFL has survived striking players, replacement reps, repeated allegations of violence and substance abuse by athletes, and Terry Bradshaw’s singing, it comes as a bit of surprise to some that something is failing to lure viewers to the TV.

Yeah, there was the absence of New England’s handsome quarterback (and lover of expensive, unmade bed), but he’s just one player on one team (a team that continued to win, for the most part, without him under center).

What about the election? The Sept. 26 presidential debate was indeed watched by more than 81 million people, and that surely cut into some of the audience for that Monday Night Football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints, but again that’s just a single game.

The upcoming Oct. 9 debate is the only of the remaining pre-election primetime events that will go head-to-head with the NFL. This time, the candidates will be up against heavier competition for TV eyes as the Sunday Night Football matchup is between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, two teams with large fan bases.

The Journal notes that while NFL viewership is down so far this year, ratings for cable news networks are up during this — to put it mildly — contentious election season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all or most of the people tuning in for the latest political news are turning off football.

It could also be a simple case of lost interest from the most casual NFL fans, who may have been tuning in out of habit rather than having any vested interest. Consumers may also feel overwhelmed by the constant presence of the NFL in advertising (see the earlier referenced Tom Brady mattress ad, not to mention the omnipresence, however charming, of Peyton Manning) and other non-football content (we’re looking at you, Dancing With The Stars).

After all pizza might be wildly popular, but not everyone wants pizza all day Sunday, and three nights a week for dinner (plus college pizza all day Saturday and maybe high school pizza on Friday).

One ad-buying exec tells the Journal that his folks are befuddled by the cause of the drop in NFL viewership through the so-called quarter pole: “We cannot pinpoint any specific reason why the numbers are down. It is probably being caused by a confluence of events.”

The Thursday and Monday night games, on CBS and ESPN, respectively, are taking the brunt of the ratings decline this season. Primetime national sporting events can be a big ratings risk, as you’re asking all of America (many of whom have strong rooting interests for a single team) to forgo other primetime programming to spend three to four hours watching two teams they might not care about play a game that has little or no impact on their team of choice.

A lackluster matchup, or a blowout that doesn’t provide any drama for viewers without a built-in rooting interest, can be a difficult sell. If the Monday Night game is already decided by halftime, are you sticking around to find out who gets the Gruden Grinder at the end of the game?

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.