Magazine article Variety

Football Faced with Ratings Interception

Magazine article Variety

Football Faced with Ratings Interception

Article excerpt

Back in JULY, Donald Trump pointed to the scheduling of two presidential debates opposite primetime NFL games as evidence of a rigged political system.

"I don't think we should be against the NFL," Trump told ABC News at the time. His campaign issued a statement warning that "millions of voters will be disenfranchised" by the football counterprogramming.

The ones disenfranchised, it turned out, were the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, whose Sept. 26 "Monday Night Football" matchup aired opposite Trump and Hillary Clinton's ñrst debate and took a massive ratings hit, down 41% in total viewers from the same week's "MNF" a year earlier. In another season, such a steep ratings decline would have been an anomaly. This season, it's part of a trend.

Ratings for each of the ñrst ñve weekends of the NFL season have been down year on year. Those declines have ranged from 7% to 12% in total viewers for each of the ñrst four weeks. If they continue, they will have a negative effect on earnings for the parent companies of the league's broadcast partners - and could do long-term damage to the value of high-priced NFL television packages.

The questions looming now are what is causing the ratings slide and whether it will persist. Some have suggested a drag due to an avowed conservative boycott against the league in response to quarterback Colin Kaepernick's National Anthem protest of police violence against black Americans. But no analysis exists to support claims of a boycott.

A more likely culprit is Trump - or, rather, the presidential campaign that has been made vastly more interesting by Trump's participation in it. The Saints-Falcons game got creamed because 84 million people tuned in to the first Clinton-Trump debate, the most ever for such a contest. For the Oct. 9 rematch, 66.5 million tuned in.

But the election's impact extends beyond a couple of debate nights. In the first four weeks of the NFL Season, Sunday afternoon viewership on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC was up 36% from the previous year, averaging an additional 562,000 viewers in total, according to Nielsen. Fox's Sunday afternoon NFL coverage, meanwhile, was down by 588,000 viewers. CBS was off by 587,000.

There is also historic precedent to lean on. The 2000 NFL season overlapped with the presidential campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which was prolonged by the recount in Florida and court battle - between the two candidates. All network NFL packages that season posted year-over-year declines.

"I think it's commanded such a great share of attention that it's taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room" Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports' executive VP of research, league operations, and strategy, says of the current election. Mulvihill believes the presidential contest has not only depressed ratings for football, but affected primetime entertainment programming and NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics. Movie box office also has likely taken a hit.

"It's really become more difficult than usual to build interest in pretty much anything else in pop culture" he says.

But the NFL faces competition for eyeballs from more than the election. In primetime, where the steepest football declines have been, viewers have more original programming options than ever. And while streaming services provide a 24-hour challenge to linear programming, audiences are more likely to turn to them in the primetime hours. …

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