Any NFL coach will tell you that two weeks does not a season make. Any network TV executives are hoping that adage holds true when it comes to the NFL’s television ratings.
Two weeks’ worth of games, and the news seems to be getting worse when it comes to the league’s TV ratings.
After the league’s opening weekend saw TV ratings fall 12 percent from the same weekend a year ago, it was easy to point to the amount of attention focused on Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida.
But in a hurricane-free Week 2, the slide continued. Ratings dropped 15 percent compared with Week 2 of last year.
And remember, last year’s ratings were down 8 percent from 2015.
The numbers are now reaching lows the NFL and its TV partners have not seen in many years.
For instance, CBS averaged an 8.4 ratings for the games it broadcast Sunday. That’s the lowest for a Week 2 where the network didn’t have doubleheader games since at least 1998.
For the first two weeks of the season, CBS games have averaged 13.9 million viewers, a drop of nearly 10 percent from last year.
NBC’s Packers-Falcons game drew 20.2 million, making it the least-watched Week 2 “Sunday Night Football” game since 2008. NBC’s three prime-time games so far this season — the two Sunday night games and the Thursday night season-opener — had 22.1 million viewers, a 7 percent decline from last year.
Fox, which has had the coveted national doubleheader games the first two Sundays of the season, has averaged 24. 4 million viewers, a 3 percent drop from its first two doubleheader games last season.
Not all ratings news was bad for the league. Last Thursday’s Texans-Bengals game on NFL Network — hardly a masterpiece of football fundamentals — was watched by an estimated 8 million viewers, a 32 percent jump over the average viewership for Thursday games on NFL Network last season.
Reasons for the decline in ratings range from on-the-field issues — poor quality of play, less-compelling matchups — to off-the-field topics — national anthem protests, boycotts organized by those who think the NFL is racist because Colin Kapernick is unsigned — to the basic reality that the NFL is broadcasting more games than ever at a time TV viewership has declined across the board.
The good news for the networks is that NFL games still draw far better numbers than just about any other program, especially among pro sports. Last year, for instance, 31 of the 100 highest-rated programs on TV were NFL games.
The bad news is the networks pay far more for NFL broadcast rights than any other sport, so lower ratings mean lower ad revenues.
The league has tried to slow the ratings decline this season by cutting the number of commercial breaks per game and allowing players to engage in more colorful end zone celebrations.
Those changes may pay off eventually. But two weeks into the season, the early results are not encouraging.
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