A record 203 million Americans watched NFL games last season, yet average ratings were down. If those two data points seem contradictory, that’s because most people don’t fully understand how TV ratings are calculated.
That total of 203 million people represents everyone who ever watched an NFL game at all, while the average ratings are about the average number of people watching a game at any given moment. That the former increased while the latter decreased suggests not that the NFL has a shrinking fan base but that the NFL has a problem with more and more fans deciding that they don’t need to watch every game as consistently as they used to.
This data comes from FOX Sports’ Mike Mulvihill, who writes at Sports Business Journal that the NFL’s biggest problem in 2016 was that more viewers were turning away from football to watch election news: The league’s ratings were down 13 percent from 2015 before Election Day but were virtually identical to 2015 after Election Day. But the second-biggest problem, and the one the NFL has some control over, is that the league has too many broadcast windows.
For the 2016 season, that meant a total of 110 NFL television windows when you add up the three every Sunday, plus Monday nights and Thursday nights, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Sunday morning games from London and so on. That’s more than the league has ever had before, and the ratings data suggest that some fans felt that football was spread so thin that they simply couldn’t keep up with it all, and they were more choosy about which games to watch.
The NFL may realize that’s a problem, and there are already indications that the league is looking at scaling back, first by moving the London games back to Sunday afternoon, and perhaps by scaling back on some other broadcast windows as well.
If the NFL scales back the schedule slightly to get back to its bread and butter of Sunday afternoons and nights, and if nothing in the news in 2017 captures America’s attention the way the election did in 2016, average ratings should improve in the season ahead. If ratings decline again, however, that’s a sign that the NFL has a real problem on its hands.