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2016 NFL Ratings Recap: Why Were They so…BAD?

Comments  /  Sam Noel


It’s no secret the NFL had a rough year in 2016. With significant ratings under-performance early in the season, many were left wondering, why are the ratings so bad? Between the drama of the Manning-Brady-Romo QB debates at the start of the season, the negative press surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest, and the competition with World Series programming, the assumption was that ratings might start slow, but viewers would eventually come back to the storied NFL franchise as they’ve done in the past. So, why didn’t they?

We believe there were three key factors that contributed to the decline in NFL TV ratings this year: the 2016 Presidential Election, oversaturation of the NFL, and the absence of key players which led to a decline in the overall quality of play.

2016 Presidential Election

The 2016 Presidential Election was historical for many reasons, but its impact went far beyond voter tallies. The Election received a massive amount of media coverage throughout the year, taking eyes away from Sports in particular. On Cable, the News networks focused on the candidates 24/7, with additional political programming that boosted ratings across the board. Also, two of the 2016 Presidential debates competed against Sunday & Monday Night Football. Even the anchors played a role: Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump’s conflict drew even more attention, as viewers tuned in to see what would happen next.

Nielsen data revealed that Election night 2016 was the most watched Election night coverage in US Cable News history, with CNN recording 13.3M viewers, Fox News at 12.1M viewers and MSNBC with just under 6M viewers. (Source: Fortune).  Post-Election, Cable News ratings dropped drastically, with a 44% decline in Prime alone, compared to the Sunday prior to the Election (Source: FOX).

We saw significant ratings differences between pre- and post-Election games, but audience totals were still lower than in years past. Through Week 9, ratings were down 14% YOY, while ratings for Weeks 10-17, were down only 1% YOY (Source: Bloomberg). Overall, the Election hurt the numbers, but even without the impact of political TV coverage and programming, there was still a decline.


The NFL is a lucrative product and a money-making machine, but have they reached the point of saturation with the product? The NFL’s drive to increase revenue has led to over-exposure to games, which is creating less demand for the product, and it’s reflected in TV ratings. With total revenue reaching $13 Billion last season (Source:, NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, stated that he wants revenue to reach $25 Billion by 2027. And, in order to reach this goal, the NFL added new products, including Thursday Night Football and the International Series in London & Mexico City. The NFL also added Streaming into the mix, making deals with Yahoo, Twitter & Verizon, to air specific games on their respective platforms.

The NFL is on Television three nights per week most weeks, and late in the season, viewers could see NFL match-ups four nights per week with Saturday night broadcasts. Don’t forget the double header to kick-off the season and a beefed up Holiday line-up for Thanksgiving, and it seems like NFL games are constantly on-air. We’ve stood by our belief in the power of watching live Sports, but with so many opportunities to watch the NFL, games no longer have the ‘it’ factor of a major TV event any longer.

From a ratings standpoint, there are more opportunities to watch the NFL on digital and social platforms than ever before, which is taking viewers away from watching games on Cable or Broadcast TV. This is particularly affecting younger viewers, who are content-driven and are used to consuming media at their convenience on other platforms. Until Nielsen implements their Total Audience Measurement tool, when we can more accurately measure the entire audience of NFL viewers across broadcast and digital platforms, we may continue to see a decline in audience figures.

Key Players and Quality of Play Concerns

The first two night games of the 2016 season featured great matchups on paper: Broncos vs. Panthers – a Super Bowl rematch – and Patriots vs. Cardinals. However, the NFL couldn’t predict these games would lack the two biggest stars of the past decade: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. So, although the Broncos & Patriots won their first games and started their seasons 4-0 & 3-1, respectively, the NFL didn’t see a tremendous ratings surge until later in the season. It appears that tuning in to watch Trevor Siemian & Jimmy Garoppolo start at QB instead of Manning and Brady was not as compelling for viewers. In fact, Week 1 ratings for the Broncos & Patriots prime games were down 10% and 15%, respectively, compared to last season’s Week 1 prime games (Source: Ratings for these two teams improved later in the season, as they both became playoff contenders, however.

Other players missing because of injury or suspension this year included headliners such as Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, J.J. Watt, Rob Gronkowski, Le’Veon Bell, Marcell Dareus, Jay Cutler, Vontaze Burfict, DeAngelo Hall, Martavis Bryant and Justin Houston. In addition, the Cowboys lost Tony Romo to a pre-season injury, and he watched from the sidelines as rookie, Dak Prescott, took over at QB. The Cowboys lost the first game of the season, but would later win 11 straight games and turn an NFL ratings “fail” into a surprising ratings success story. However, not all teams saw success with their rookie replacements.

While missing ratings-friendly personalities had an impact on viewership, there is also general concern about the quality of the NFL’s product. The first four Monday night games were disappointing. The Sunday night Chiefs vs. Steelers match-up was a 22-0 blow-out after the first quarter, and eventually a blowout win for the Steelers. The Thursday Night Football product has also been a consistent poor-performer. Since each team must be featured on TNF once a season, the result is often a horrendous game with poor ratings, (Jets vs. Bills and Titans vs. Jaguars). Combined with increased on-field rules and restrictions, as well as questions about the quality of the NFL referees, many feel the NFL’s product is in decline. (Source: Sporting News)

There are many factors that led to the decline in ratings for the NFL this season. The election is a valid excuse for the first 9 weeks, but even after ratings rebounded slightly once the election ended, they were still down compared to last season. The numbers showed that NFL ratings and minutes watched increased drastically when better teams were on TV. However, the NFL can’t feature Patriots, Cowboys, Broncos and Steelers’ games the entire season. It will be interesting to see what changes are made to the league in 2017. How do you think the NFL win over viewers again?