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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

For The Last Time: NFL Ratings Are Not Down. They're Up, Compared To Everything Else

Illustration for article titled For The Last Time: NFL Ratings Are Not Down. They're Up, Compared To Everything Else
Photo: Rob Carr (Getty Images)

I am once again forced to use this space to explain something that is evident to anyone who has been paying attention to the nature of the television industry over the past few years.


Donald Trump, in his never-ending war on the NFL, lied about the league’s declining TV ratings in a speech Thursday to Montana residents:

“This commissioner, where this guy comes from, I have no idea. They’re paying him $40 million a year, and their ratings are down 20 percent. But you know why the ratings are down? Yes, the flag.”

First of all, the commissioner comes from New York, which is also where Donald Trump is from, and the commissioner’s father was a Republican who served in both chambers of Congress. Somehow, this makes Roger Goodell a mysterious figure to Trump; more importantly, the president more than doubles the NFL’s 2017 ratings decline, while also providing a dipshit reasoning for that decline.

Here are some facts: The NFL’s ratings declined 9% in 2017, and 8% in 2016. In the prized 18-45 demographic, the NFL declined 12% in 2017. Here’s how some TV networks you probably watch—or used to watch—fared in 2017, according to Nielsen 18-49 data:

  • NBC: down 19%
  • Fox: down 8%
  • CBS: down 19%
  • ABC: down 15%
  • Univision: down 18%
  • CW: down 15%
  • TBS: down 11%
  • Adult Swim: down 16%
  • AMC: down 20%
  • FX: down 14%
  • Food Network: down 10%
  • Lifetime: down 21%
  • Comedy Central: down 18%
  • Spike TV: down 24%
  • Disney Channel: down 24%
  • E!: down 18%

...and so on. (ESPN, you’ll recall, actually gained a few viewers.) There were nearly 500 scripted series aired on U.S. TV in 2017, more than double the number that aired in 2009. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu are driving this massive increase in available programming, and nearly every broadcast network is taking it on the chin as a result. Overall, broadcast networks lost 16% of their viewers in 2017; cable networks lost 11%. And that’s using Nielsen’s “C3" ratings formula, which counts DVR viewings. The NFL only lost 9%.

The NFL’s ratings have fallen substantially less than TV as a whole. Indeed, Sunday Night Football remained the highest-rated show for the seventh straight season. Ten years ago, it didn’t even crack the top 10. Monday Night Football’s viewership fell, but only by 3%.

Are NFL ratings down? Yes, but only if you don’t compensate for the overall decline in TV viewers due to streaming services, et cetera. If you do compensate for the overall decline in TV viewers, NFL ratings are up.

If you believe, as Donald Trump has stated to be a fact on no fewer than ten occasions, that the NFL’s viewership is affected by the “flag controversy,” then there is only one logical conclusion at which you can arrive: that American TV viewers watched more of the NFL because of player protests. The NFL’s share of a rapidly-shrinking TV audience grew in 2016, and it grew by an even larger amount in 2017. As a percentage of people who are watching television, the NFL is commanding its biggest audience in the history of the league.


I’ll repeat it, again, for the president and everyone:

  • Broadcast TV networks lost 16% of their viewers,
  • Cable networks lost 11% of their viewers,
  • The NFL lost 9% of its viewers.

NFL ratings are not “down.” And they certainly aren’t down 20%, no matter how you measure it.

Timothy Burke is formerly Deadspin's Video Director.