Last year, the ratings decline subsided after the presidential election. This year, there was no presidential election, which means there likely will be no post-election bounce in the ratings.
With the final eight weeks of the regular season beginning tonight, there’s no reason to think this year’s troubling trend will change, because there’s no reason for people to return to following football after the various debates and town halls and other political shows and specials that sucked people away from watching football before November 8, 2016. And with, as Darren Rovell of ESPN noted on Wednesday, total ratings are down 5.5 percent through the first nine weeks of 2017 in comparison to the first nine weeks of 2016, the absence of a post-election bounce means the gap is about to get bigger.
It’s unclear what the NFL can do on the fly to avoid that. It’s unclear whether the NFL is trying to. One solution would be the aggressive use of flexing to ensure that the best games will be played in the biggest Sunday spots, rules that limited flexibility be damned.
Creativity will be needed to fix this one, and it needs to be applied not after the season ends but in real time. For a league that has grown accustomed to smooth sailing and ever-rising numbers, there may be no mechanism in place for dealing with this kind of crisis. There should be; otherwise, the other kinds of crises the league is confronting will continue to take precedence.