Last year, the perception/reality (reality) that NFL ratings had dropped came from a weekly, linear, apples-to-apples comparison of specific windows in 2016 to the same windows in 2015. For example, Week Four Monday night in 2016 was compared to Week Four Monday night in 2015.
Now, the comparisons have become something that depends on the eye of the beholder. Or the brain of the spinner.
During a Tuesday media briefing, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart never mentioned the specific comparison between Week Four Monday night ratings in 2017 and Week Four Monday night ratings in 2016. Instead, Lockhart said that year-to-date ratings on Monday Night Football are up by six percent in comparison to 2016, and he said that a straight comparison from year to year for the window doesn’t work due to differences in market size.
While the game a year ago involved the Giants and the Vikings, SportsBusiness Daily notes that Washington-Kansas City generated the lowest Monday night Week Four rating since 2011, when the Buccaneers hosted the Colts. Also, the apples-to-apples number from 2017 to 2016 showed a drop of eight percent. (In 2015, the Monday night game for Week Four pitted the Chiefs against the Packers. In 2014, it was Patriots-Chiefs. For 2013, the NFL scheduled Dolphins-Saints in that window. In 2012, the Cowboys hosted the Bears. Each performed better in the Week Four Monday night spot than last night’s game.)
Of course, the league didn’t mind making the straight apples-to-apples comparison a week ago, boasting that Cowboys-Cardinals reflected a dramatic increase over the Monday night game played in Week Three a year earlier. That comparison came without a mention of the difference in national following and, most importantly, without a reference to the fact that the Falcons-Saints game competed with the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The constant effort to massage the ratings in the light most favorable to the league isn’t surprising. Even though the numbers don’t lie, the NFL wants to create the sense that the games are performing better when compared to whatever specific number makes it seem that the league is doing better. If people hear that other people aren’t watching as much football, they may be inclined to watch less football. Likewise, if people hear that other people are watching more football, they may be inclined to watch more football.