After seven weeks, the NFL has a problem. Whether the league wants it acknowledge it publicly or privately or will try to minimize it with damage-control doublespeak (“we don’t have fewer viewers, the same viewers are viewing less“), the NFL has a problem.
Ratings are down, every week in nearly every broadcasting window.
For Week Seven, the 9.4 overnight rating for the Bears-Packers game reflected an 18.2-percent drop from the Week Seven TNF game in 2015, a 20-3 win by the Seahawks over the 49ers. The Sunday night game between the Seahawks and Cardinals dropped by 15 percent from last year’s Eagles-Panthers game, with an 11.6 rating.
The Sunday late-afternoon window, which has for the most part been performing better than prime-time games, also was down sharply, with a 13.2-percent drop in the Patriots-Steelers game on CBS in 2016 and the Week Seven 2015 game between the Cowboys and Giants.
Plenty of potential reasons have been identified for the decline, but perhaps the simplest is that too many games (especially in prime time) lack real excitement, in part because they lack scoring. When the Seahawks and Cardinals are engaged in a punt-fest deadlocked (emphasis on the dead) 3-0 at halftime, who wouldn’t give in to the strong temptation to change the channel and/or go do something else for an hour or so, or long? It quickly became clear on Sunday night that it made sense to check out until 11:15 p.m. ET, or to check out for good.
No one cares about a game that has six total points scored through 60 minutes of action. Four decades ago, the NFL realized that 38-35 was much more exciting than 13-9, which prompted the league to make a series of rules changes aimed at infusing more offense into the game. Which led to more score and more excitement and eventually fueled the rise of fantasy football.
The challenge for the league, beyond cultivating more stars (by, you know, embracing their individuality and not suppressing it), developing more talent (especially at quarterback), and picking better games for prime-time programming, becomes finding a way to make football exciting again. Currently, not nearly enough people think it is.
And before anyone at 345 Park Avenue starts percolating possibilities for tweaking the rules in order to light up scoreboards, here’s hoping that all potential unintended consequences will be fully considered. Because if the NFL’s notion for pumping nitrous oxide into offenses has the same impact as that bright idea for reducing kickoff returns, there will be more snore-inducing defensive struggles in the future.