One of the hotly debated and dissected topics this fall among sports media types is why the NFL’s television ratings have tanked. We’ll address some of the hypotheses below, but Thursday night marks an interesting moment for the league. That night represents NBC’s debut as the Thursday Night Football package rights-holder, and the viewership for the Saints at Panthers will give us a marker on how much the Presidential election cycle drew eyeballs away from the league.
On that last note, both the NFL and the majority of sports television officials believe that the reality show nature of the Donald Trump-Hilary Clinton race has been the biggest reason for the NFL’s declining viewership for 2016. Through Week 9 of the NFL season, according to Mike Mulvihill, a Fox Sports executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy, Sunday afternoon cable news viewing had increased by 99% over last year. That’s why league officials were buoyed by some of the numbers from this past Sunday. Fox’s broadcast of the Cowboys-Steelers thriller was the most-watched game of the 2016 NFL season, drawing 28.88 million viewers. Later that night, NBC’s telecast of the Seahawks’ victory over the Patriots on Sunday Night Football drew 22.51 million viewers—the most-watched Week 10 NFL primetime game in 18 years and topping last year’s Week 10 SNF game by 16% (19.4 million for Cardinals-Seahawks).
Now for the caveats: Dallas is far and away the NFL’s best television draw historically, and they will rate in any climate. Also, Sports Media Watch noted that last season’s Packers-Broncos game on SNF earned a 14.3 overnight, which ranked 10th out of NBC’s 19 total telecasts.
If you believe the NFL’s declines are part of a larger, longer trend for disparate reasons (terrible games, a lack of star quarterbacks, election coverage, cord-cutting, anger toward players’ protesting), ESPN’s tanking Monday Night Football ratings will buttress your claim. The Giants-Bengals drew 10.7 million viewers on Monday, down 12% in viewership from the Texans-Bengals last year (12.2 million viewers), per Sports Media watch, and 5% from Panthers-Eagles in 2014 (11.3 million). Mulvihill tweeted that every network airing football was down double digits in viewership for 2016 except Fox’s NFC Sunday package (which is down 2% to 19.14 million viewers, mostly thanks to Dallas).
So what now? Sports Business Daily writer John Ourand believes that the NFL will not see a significant uptick until next season, positing that a President-elect Trump will “continue to suck all the oxygen out of live television and that news networks will see ratings gains every time Trump makes a move to build his administration.” Ad Age’s Anthony Crupi suggested the same thing. I tend to agree. On Monday, according to SportsTVRatings.com, CNN, Fox News Channel and MNBC drew a collective 6.048 million, up from 4.712 million from the same Monday in 2015. I think the demand for political news during the transition from Barack Obama to Trump will remain insatiable and continue to cut into the NFL’s regular season (the playoffs will be immune).
Here’s something to watch heading forward: CBS and the NFL Network averaged 14.7 million for its Thursday games this season, down 16% from 17.6 million viewers a year ago. If NBC’s viewership for its part of the TNF package can near last year’s numbers for TNF, you’ll have an indicator (not an absolute but an indicator) that the election was the primary factor.
The Noise Report
1. On Wednesday night the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland held a symposium on the future of sports television, a spirited discussion featuring boldfaced names such as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and ESPN president John Skipper. Near the end of the evening during the audience Q&A part of the program, NFL Network correspondent Andrea Kremer, who was one of the panelists and a former ESPN employee, asked Delaney and Skipper why a women had not cracked the glass ceiling of calling NFL play-by-play. “I think we will get there,” said Skipper. “We are committed to it. Look, we have women calling NBA games, we have women calling college football games, and we look for opportunities to put women in the booth. . . . There is no reason not to do it now. It is one of things where people are making progress and that would be seen as there is no limit.”
Look around. The only sports network/division among those that air NFL games (CBS, Fox, NFL Network, NBC, and ESPN) showing any full-time commitment to assigning women to on-air positions for men’s sports is ESPN. Doris Burke, Kara Lawson, Jessica Mendoza and Beth Mowins are the most prominent of that group. (That CBS and Fox have multiple NFL teams, andt he fact that we’ve never seen a woman get any kind of shot in the booth tells you something.)
At the end of the NFL season, Chris Berman is scheduled to exit ESPN. For the past couple of years he has called the back end of the Monday Night Football opening doubleheader. Prior to that ESPN used Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic as a marketing play for their radio show.
The time for symposium chatter is over. Mowins has now called the Raiders’ exhibition games for the past two seasons in addition to her college football schedule. Unlike Berman or Greenberg, she’s an actual full-time football game-caller. Skipper should step up and tell his NFL people that Mowins is doing next year’s MNF doubleheader game. He says there’s no reason not to do it now, and he’s in a position to do it now. So do it.
2. NBC announced on Wednesday (obviously with the NFL’s permission, given it is a change in the language of the Thursday Night Football contract) that Mike Tirico will handle play-by-play for four additional NFL games this year including this Sunday’s Packers-Redskins game; the Steelers-Colts Thanksgiving night game; the Chiefs-Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, and Giants-Eagles on Thursday, Dec. 22. Tirico will also be in the booth for the Dec. 17 Dolphins-Jets game and the Dec. 25 Ravens-Steelers game, both of which will be televised on NFL Network.
3. Episode 89 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Paul Finebaum, who hosts The Paul Finebaum Show, which airs on ESPN Radio and is simulcast on the SEC Network. Finebaum is also part of the SEC Network’s SEC Nation and regularly appears on ESPN.
In this podcast, we discuss how Finebaum’s relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban and what happened at SEC Media Day when the two got into a heated discussion; how he prepares for his show, especially when college football is not in regular season; how to take a regional show and make it popular nationally; what he thinks of Greg McElroy and Tim Tebow as analysts; what his relationship is with some of his well-known callers (e.g. Phyllis from Mulga Ala., Jim from Tuscaloosa); what finding success later in his professional life meant for him; how he thought his professional career had stalled before the New Yorker magazine profiled him; his advice for young people who do not consider themselves TV people, and much more.