Puerto Rico is in ruins, North Korea is threatening to drop hydrogen bombs, Obamacare’s repeal is slipping back into the grave from which it rose, and tax reform is languishing in Congress. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has tweeted 25 times since Saturday about NFL ratings and the right of athletes to kneel during the national anthem.
The president, whose fixation with attendance has been obvious from literally the second that he became president, has repeatedly said the NFL’s ratings were “WAY DOWN” due to protests. He even took personal credit for the league’s declining viewership.
Is the president right? Yes and no. Yes, in that there is little question that football viewership, the jewel of the cable bundle, is in decline; and this, in itself, is an important media story. But also no, since it’s not clear that either the president or the protests are the primary culprit.
First, the ratings. It’s important to beware headlines about bad ratings for one particular game, or one specific week. Football isn’t like a television show that airs with the same characters on a weekly basis. Instead, there are 32 teams playing a 17-week round-robin, with four main television windows for NFL action: early Sunday games (airing at 1 p.m. Eastern Time), later Sunday games (airing around 4 p.m. Eastern), Sunday Night Football on NBC, and Monday Night Football on ESPN. For any given week, ratings could easily be down in one window and up for another, depending on the star power of the players, the quality of the game, and the popularity of competing shows.
That said, the general trend is down in almost every window for the last four years. Last year, the NFL’s decline accelerated due to an uptick in cord-cutting, a blockbuster presidential election, and a raft of non-competitive games.
Overnight ratings for National NFL games on CBS for Week 3:— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 25, 2017
2014 -- 16.9 (Super Bowl rematch)
2015 -- 14.1
2016 -- 13.9
2017 -- 13.8
This year, the NFL-ratings picture through three weeks is muddled. During the preseason, ratings were up. In Weeks 1 and 2, ratings declined in two-thirds of NFL windows. In Week 3, after the president’s comments, there was little evidence of a Trump Effect. Ratings were up for some day games, down on Sunday night, and up again on Monday for the Dallas Cowboys, who prevailed over the Arizona Cardinals after taking a collective knee before the national anthem. The most accurate 2017 summary of NFL ratings is: mostly flat or down, but up whenever the Cowboys play.
So, what’s behind the decline in football ratings?
This is a multibillion-dollar question. Television networks and carriers, such as ESPN and DirecTV, have committed $50 billion to the NFL until the early 2020s. U.S. companies spend more than $4 billion annually on ads during games.
The decline of NFL viewership is seen as an omen for the demise of the cable bundle, but it’s difficult to say for sure why ratings are declining. Last year, NFL viewership was down 12 percent annually until the presidential election, leading many (including me) to suggest that the blockbuster campaign was the primary reason for the decline. But after the election, viewership was still down 5 percent through the end of the season in January.
Some high-profile surveys blamed Colin Kaepernick and other pre-game protesters. And there is no question that many Americans are personally offended by pre-game demonstrations. But this explanation is unsatisfying, for two reasons. First, Kaepernick isn’t on any NFL team in 2017, and Week 1 viewership this year was even lower than 2016, in some windows. What’s more, there is some evidence that the number of people who watched any part of an NFL game increased in 2016, and ratings only dropped because fewer people watched until the end. This suggests that the quality of the gameplay, not the tenor of politics, was the more important culprit.
But each of these explanations are specific to football, which means they ignore the larger, and more important truth: Ratings are down for everything, except for cable news. Out of 78 prime-time broadcast series that aired in both 2016 and 2017, only one—ABC’s The Bachelor—increased viewership among people under 50. Just about every live sport is dealing with the same problem. NASCAR, although praised by Trump for its fealty to the national anthem, opened its most recent playoffs with the lowest ratings ever. Last year, the NBA had some of its lowest-rated games ever, as well.
These facts cry out for a broader, structural explanation. One is that Trump’s nonstop news cycle has become a more entertaining sport than, well, sports. But here is an even more important one: Five years ago, there were hardly a million “cord-cutter” households. Today, there are an estimated 7 million. That’s an exodus from pay television the size of Virginia and New Jersey combined. It’s inconceivable that this would have no effect whatsoever on NFL ratings. Rather, football is the most buoyant cargo aboard a sinking ship.
Cord-cutting has been going on for a while. The decline in football viewership is more recent. So, how do these stories match up? The cord-cutting revolution is concentrated among younger people, while households over 55 are actually watching more TV than ever. To put it bluntly, older Americans die at higher rates, and younger Americans find themselves torn between many TV options. In this way, football will find that its consumer base is structurally bounded by entertainment abundance on one hand and mortality on the other. That ought to lead, not to an audience implosion, but a slow and steady overall decline.
Nobody should be surprised to find Trump patting himself on the back for this development. The president has a habit of taking credit for structural shifts that his tenure has merely inherited. For example, he took credit for his first “1 million jobs,” even though job growth had slowed from a level that the president previously criticized as too low.
But to the extent that there is a Trump Effect at work, it is mostly the president’s ability to turn everything into a story about attention metrics. NFL viewership was once an arcane tabulation, which only TV execs and sports-media insiders obsessed over. It has become a kind of national referendum on the president, social justice, and the propriety of pre-game protest. Under this president, nothing escapes politicization—especially ratings.