As you’ve probably heard by now if you care about football, the NFL’s television ratings are down this season in every single primetime slot: Sunday nights, Monday nights and Thursday nights.
Through the first four weeks of the season, Monday Night Football viewership was down 19% from last year. It rebounded slightly this week to bring the overall average decline to 10% for all games.
Everyone is asking: Is the election to blame?
1. Yes, Trump and Clinton are hurting NFL ratings
The election is the official excuse the NFL is going with, and it has clearly contributed to the drop. The New Orleans Saints vs Atlanta Falcons game on Sept. 26, the night of the first presidential debate, was the lowest-rated Monday Night Football game ever, with 8 million viewers (84 million people watched the debate). The New York Giants vs Green Bay Packers game on Oct. 9 was up from the Sunday before (with a 10.2 rating), but was still the lowest-rated Sunday Night Football game since October 2013.
“The dip in ratings over the first month of the season is likely due to a confluence of factors headlined by the attention around our presidential election, which is unprecedented,” says the NFL in a statement.
The attention on the election has been “unprecedented,” yes, and the campaign cycle is likely the No. 1 contributor to the NFL ratings drop. Trump himself told ABC News in July, when the debates were scheduled, “I don’t think we should be [scheduled] against the NFL.”
But many games were down from last year, not just the two games that have fallen on the same nights as debates. The Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers game on October 10 got ESPN’s lowest Monday Night Football rating (6.5 overnight) since ESPN started showing Monday Night Football in 2006, and there was no debate that night.
So it isn’t just the election causing the drop. There are at least two other big factors contributing to the damage.
2. Social media platforms have more NFL content
The NFL has been hard at work, in the past year, inking new content partnerships with social media platforms. As the NFL’s head of social media told Yahoo Finance, these platform partnerships are a priority for the league right now. In 2014, the NFL partnered with Facebook to give Facebook game highlight clips (with ads from Verizon); this year, the NFL launched an official “Discover” channel on Snapchat; it also sold Twitter the right to live-stream 10 Thursday Night Football games. (Twitter is also live streaming the debates, and the debates have lured more viewers than the NFL live streams have.)
#TNF is back!
— Twitter (@twitter) October 7, 2016
All of this is smart by the league, but it also means that there are more places than ever before to find clips and highlights from NFL games on something other than a television.
The rise of cord-cutting has posed a major threat to the NFL and to sports broadcasters like ESPN, and these giants find themselves at a difficult crossroads: they acknowledge the need to cater to cord-cutters, but can’t cater to them completely, because it would kill their business model. In the NFL’s case, partnerships with social platforms help the league reach younger fans, but may also give those younger fans less motivation to watch a full game on television.
3. Football fatigue: scandals, protests, and Thursdays
NFL ratings were not going to go up forever; there had to be a ceiling eventually. Many in sports media are theorizing that the league has at last hit that ceiling. And there are more signs, recently, of football fatigue, possibly prompted by various dramas on and off the field. You could break these dramas into three subcategories:
A. The league has been riddled with player conduct scandal for the past two seasons. It started with at least three prominent domestic violence cases off the field, involving running back Ray Rice, running back Adrian Peterson, and defensive end Greg Hardy.
Then there was Deflategate, a dispute over football air pressure that lasted 544 days, and, regardless of where your allegiances fall as a fan, was the strangest sports scandal in decades. Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback at the center of it all, returned last Sunday after serving a four-game suspension, but the media circus over the scandal has been a major turnoff to many fans.
B. Colin Kaepernick’s on-the-field protests, which began when the San Francisco 49ers quarterback sat on the bench during the national anthem in preseason games and then moved to taking a knee, have attracted widespread media attention. Many athletes (not just in football) have followed his lead, while others have criticized it. But either way, the noise (often, vitriol) over the demonstration has politicized football to the point where some conservative fans claim to be sick of it, and may be tuning out until it passes.
In a memo to the league’s media committee, leaked by ESPN, NFL executives Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz directly addressed the Kaepernick protests, writing: “We see no evidence that concern over player protests during the National Anthem is having any material impact on our ratings.”
As Daniel Holloway at Variety writes, “No analysis exists to support claims of a boycott,” but it is certainly possible that Kaepernick’s actions have alienated some fans.
C. Then there’s Thursday Night Football. It has been exactly 10 years since the NFL started playing games on Thursdays, and it is an experiment that many players still hate. Players and coaches resent that the Thursday night game gives them a short 5 days to practice, and fans resent that the matchups are often less than thrilling. The gameplay on the field proves the problem: Thursday games average fewer total offensive yards than Sunday night or Monday night games.
As Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo Sports asks, “Does anyone like the Thursday night games?” He suggests that when the NFL’s TV rights deals with NBC and CBS for Thursday Night Football expire, in 2017, it “should go back to the drawing board because it’s obviously a subpar product and perhaps it dilutes the interest in the Sunday and Monday night games.”
The topic of Thursday Night Football came up on Friday morning on the ESPN radio show “Mike & Mike,” when co-host Mike Greenberg said, “Thursday Night Football stinks. They put these games on Thursday night and every week they stink. These teams are not ready to play.” Former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth, a recurring guest on the show, commented, “It is about the money, and I think everyone in the sport understands it’s a diminished product,” though he went on to defend Thursday Night Football.
Rolapp and Katz, in the leaked NFL media committee memo, reassured team owners that the NFL, “continues to be far and away the most powerful programming on television” and made the argument that the league suffers from comparisons to its own success: “We are challenged in comparison to the first few weeks of the 2015 and 2014 seasons, which from a ratings perspective were two of the three best starts that we have had in the last 10 years.”
Whatever the true cause of the NFL ratings slump, you can bet that the league is delighted that the third and final presidential debate will take place on a Wednesday.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.