NFL’s TV ratings improve across nearly every network as the controversy over player protests abates

After two years of declines, NFL television ratings are showing modest gains.

Three of the league’s television partners have shown increases after the first nine week of the season (ESPN/ABC, CBS, and NBC) while one (Fox) remains flat. That is welcome news after ratings decreased 9.7 percent last season and 8 percent in 2016.

‘I’m glad the league has turned the corner. The top teams are very exciting and there are plenty of high-scoring games,’ said Neil Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs his own sports television consulting company.

Pilson said a major ratings driver has been the emergence of young quarterbacks like the Rams’ Jared Goff, Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky. That has created a buzz not only with their teams but throughout the league.

Another factor is that player protests against social and racial injustice during the national anthem have not been a major storyline this season, although many experts contested whether the demonstrations were the reason for the ratings downtick in the first place. 

Pilson noted that ‘a few of those folks who said they were going to stop watching I don’t know how many did.’

When asked about the rising television ratings, one executive credited the emergence of young quarterbacks like the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes (pictured) and Bears' Mitchell Trubisky.

When asked about the rising television ratings, one executive credited the emergence of young quarterbacks like the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes (pictured) and Bears' Mitchell Trubisky.

When asked about the rising television ratings, one executive credited the emergence of young quarterbacks like the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (pictured) and Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky.

NBC's 'Sunday Night Football' package has shown the biggest improvement with an eight percent increase from last season. It is averaging 19.7 million viewers, compared to 18.3 million last season. Pictured are NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collingsworth

NBC's 'Sunday Night Football' package has shown the biggest improvement with an eight percent increase from last season. It is averaging 19.7 million viewers, compared to 18.3 million last season. Pictured are NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collingsworth

NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Football’ package has shown the biggest improvement with an eight percent increase from last season. It is averaging 19.7 million viewers, compared to 18.3 million last season. Pictured are NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collingsworth

Some are still protesting in 2018, including Miami's Kenny Stills (left) and Albert Wilson (right)

Some are still protesting in 2018, including Miami's Kenny Stills (left) and Albert Wilson (right)

Some are still protesting in 2018, including Miami’s Kenny Stills (left) and Albert Wilson (right)

NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Football’ package has shown the biggest improvement with an eight percent increase from last season. It is averaging 19.7 million viewers, compared to 18.3 million last season.

This past Sunday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots averaged a league-high 23.7 million, and was the largest prime-time audience on any network since ABC aired the Academy Awards in March. NBC has seen increases all but one week compared to last season.

‘We’re looking forward to the second half of our schedule, which features many crucial divisional matchups, the Thanksgiving night game, plus the Week 17 flex game. We expect ‘Sunday Night Football’ to finish atop the prime-time rankings yet again,’ NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said in a statement.

ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ is averaging 11.4 million, which is up three percent (11.1 million). Pilson has been critical of scheduling for Thursday and Monday nights in past seasons, but he said the league has made improvements in those areas. ESPN will have one of the marquee games of the season on November 19 when Kansas City faces the Los Angeles Rams in Mexico City.

Kaepernick ignited a nationwide controversy in 2016 when he decided to protest inequality and racist police brutality by refusing to stand during the national anthem

Kaepernick ignited a nationwide controversy in 2016 when he decided to protest inequality and racist police brutality by refusing to stand during the national anthem

Kaepernick ignited a nationwide controversy in 2016 when he decided to protest inequality and racist police brutality by refusing to stand during the national anthem

If the American public truly is fed up with NFL players protesting, Nielsen ratings would have been down in markets with both unsuccessful and successful teams. However, the league took its biggest ratings hits in markets that happened to play poorly in 2017. Meanwhile, New Orleans - which is an area of strength for Trump - watched more NFL as the Saints finished 11-5

If the American public truly is fed up with NFL players protesting, Nielsen ratings would have been down in markets with both unsuccessful and successful teams. However, the league took its biggest ratings hits in markets that happened to play poorly in 2017. Meanwhile, New Orleans - which is an area of strength for Trump - watched more NFL as the Saints finished 11-5

If the American public truly is fed up with NFL players protesting, Nielsen ratings would have been down in markets with both unsuccessful and successful teams. However, the league took its biggest ratings hits in markets that happened to play poorly in 2017. Meanwhile, New Orleans – which is an area of strength for Trump – watched more NFL as the Saints finished 11-5

Fox's Sunday afternoon coverage is averaging more viewers than CBS at 17.299 million, but this is a decrease of less than one percent from last season

Fox's Sunday afternoon coverage is averaging more viewers than CBS at 17.299 million, but this is a decrease of less than one percent from last season

Fox’s Sunday afternoon coverage is averaging more viewers than CBS at 17.299 million, but this is a decrease of less than one percent from last season

‘For years I thought that they were burying those two nights but they have improved dramatically,’ he said.

CBS’ Sunday afternoon games are averaging 15.7 million viewers, which is up one percent from last season (15.5 million). This past Sunday’s slate of five games, which was headlined by Pittsburgh at Baltimore, had a 10.0 household rating, which was up 23 percent from the same week last season.

CBS is averaging 15.7 million on Sundays as Tony Romo (left) and Jim Nantz (right) have called the network's 'Game of the Week' 

CBS is averaging 15.7 million on Sundays as Tony Romo (left) and Jim Nantz (right) have called the network's 'Game of the Week' 

CBS is averaging 15.7 million on Sundays as Tony Romo (left) and Jim Nantz (right) have called the network’s ‘Game of the Week’ 

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, whose network has Super Bowl 53, has been pleased with advertising sales for the rest of the season and the Feb. 3 game in Atlanta.

‘There are a number of very good stories. Kansas City is a team of national interest, Mahomes has become a legit star and a lot of the big teams – including New Orleans, Pittsburgh and New England – are playing very well,’ he said.

Fox’s Sunday afternoon coverage is averaging more viewers than CBS at 17.299 million, but this is a decrease of less than one percent from last season (17.414 million).

The only package that has sharply declined is Thursday Night Football. It is averaging 12.522 million viewers in its first season on Fox, which is down from the 14.134 million on CBS last season. Fox though is hopeful that the numbers can rebound over the next month, which includes Green Bay at Seattle (November 15), New Orleans at Dallas (Novemebr 29) and the Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City (December 13).

Pilson and McManus both think the league’s overall improvements could carry through the second half. That’s even better news for McManus, as he sees a number of potential Super Bowl matchups that would bode well for CBS.

Sunday's game between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots averaged a league-high 23.7 million, and was the largest prime-time audience on any network since ABC aired the Academy Awards in March. NBC has seen increases all but one week compared to 2018

Sunday's game between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots averaged a league-high 23.7 million, and was the largest prime-time audience on any network since ABC aired the Academy Awards in March. NBC has seen increases all but one week compared to 2018

Sunday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots averaged a league-high 23.7 million, and was the largest prime-time audience on any network since ABC aired the Academy Awards in March. NBC has seen increases all but one week compared to 2018

Week 4 was particularly good for CBS. The network's national broadcast of the Saints-Giants Sunday afternoon game was seen by 20.7 million viewers, making it the sixth most-watched broadcast of September and a 33 percent improvement from last year's Raiders-Broncos game, which occupied the same time slot

Week 4 was particularly good for CBS. The network's national broadcast of the Saints-Giants Sunday afternoon game was seen by 20.7 million viewers, making it the sixth most-watched broadcast of September and a 33 percent improvement from last year's Raiders-Broncos game, which occupied the same time slot

Week 4 was particularly good for CBS. The network’s national broadcast of the Saints-Giants Sunday afternoon game was seen by 20.7 million viewers, making it the sixth most-watched broadcast of September and a 33 percent improvement from last year’s Raiders-Broncos game, which occupied the same time slot

The most-watched broadcast of September was the NFL's Week 1 game between the Carolina Panthers and the perennially popular Dallas Cowboys, which drew 23.4 million viewers to Fox

The most-watched broadcast of September was the NFL's Week 1 game between the Carolina Panthers and the perennially popular Dallas Cowboys, which drew 23.4 million viewers to Fox

The most-watched broadcast of September was the NFL’s Week 1 game between the Carolina Panthers and the perennially popular Dallas Cowboys, which drew 23.4 million viewers to Fox

‘I’m encouraged. There are a lot of good storylines that will carry throughout the next couple months,’ he said. ‘With so much going on that is negative people are looking for an escape and football provides that for a lot of people.’

Remarkably, league games accounted for the country’s 15 largest television audiences for the month of September.

This came after two September tweets, in which President Donald Trump attacked the NFL and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the protests in 2016, while insisting that the league is suffering because of the public’s objection to the controversial protests.

Former chairman of CBS Sports Sean McManus has been pleased with the NFL's turnaround and credits many of the league's young quarterbacks, like Mitchell Trubisky

Former chairman of CBS Sports Sean McManus has been pleased with the NFL's turnaround and credits many of the league's young quarterbacks, like Mitchell Trubisky

Former chairman of CBS Sports Sean McManus has been pleased with the NFL’s turnaround and credits many of the league’s young quarterbacks, like Mitchell Trubisky

‘Wow, NFL first game ratings are way down over an already really bad last year comparison,’ Trump tweeted after the ratings for the Falcons-Eagles season opener on September 6 dropped 8 percent from the first game of 2017. 

‘Viewership declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade,’ the tweet continued. ‘If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!’ (Trump was correct about the 10-year ratings low, although he neglected to mention the effect a 45-minute weather delay likely had on the Nielsen ratings. However, the 13 percent ratings drop he referenced was likely a conflation with the broadcast’s overnight rating of 13.4.)

A small contingent of players have continued protesting in 2018, such as Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and Carolina Panther safety Eric Reid, but the league can still boast an unparalleled audience.

Even with the decline in Nielsen ratings, the NFL still boasted 37 of the top 50 highest-rated broadcasts in 2017. (Nielsen ratings are a percentage of a television market’s estimated overall viewership at any given time, so a 15.0 national rating means an average of 15 percent of all American viewers were watching that theoretical broadcast)

And compared to the rest of the television industry – which has been brutalized by streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime – the NFL’s ratings have done relatively well. 

ESPN's 'Monday Night Football' is averaging 11.418 million, which is up three percent (11.135 million). Pilson has been critical of scheduling for Thursday and Monday nights in past seasons, but he said the league has made improvements in those areas. ESPN will have one of the marquee games of the season on November 19 when Kansas City faces the Los Angeles Rams in Mexico City. Their current booth includes Jason Witten (left) and Joe Tessitore (right) 

ESPN's 'Monday Night Football' is averaging 11.418 million, which is up three percent (11.135 million). Pilson has been critical of scheduling for Thursday and Monday nights in past seasons, but he said the league has made improvements in those areas. ESPN will have one of the marquee games of the season on November 19 when Kansas City faces the Los Angeles Rams in Mexico City. Their current booth includes Jason Witten (left) and Joe Tessitore (right) 

ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ is averaging 11.418 million, which is up three percent (11.135 million). Pilson has been critical of scheduling for Thursday and Monday nights in past seasons, but he said the league has made improvements in those areas. ESPN will have one of the marquee games of the season on November 19 when Kansas City faces the Los Angeles Rams in Mexico City. Their current booth includes Jason Witten (left) and Joe Tessitore (right) 

NFL RATINGS SLIPPED IN 2016 AND 2017 FOR ‘FOOTBALL REASONS’

Trump (pictured) seized on the issue during a rally in September of 2017, and has criticized the commissioner Roger Goodell for not implementing any rule compelling players to stand for The Star Spangled Banner. In 2018, NFL ratings were up 1 percent through four weeks

Trump (pictured) seized on the issue during a rally in September of 2017, and has criticized the commissioner Roger Goodell for not implementing any rule compelling players to stand for The Star Spangled Banner. In 2018, NFL ratings were up 1 percent through four weeks

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced a compromise to the anthem issue in July, only to put the resolution on hold while the league negotiates a compromise with the players' union.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced a compromise to the anthem issue in July, only to put the resolution on hold while the league negotiates a compromise with the players' union.

President Donald Trump (left) seized on the issue of player protests during a rally in September of 2017, and has criticized the commissioner Roger Goodell (right) for not implementing any rule compelling players to stand for The Star Spangled Banner

By Alex Raskin, sports news editor for DailyMail.com 

President Donald Trump’s  insistence that the NFL’s ratings slipped during the 2016 and 2017 seasons because of players protesting during the national anthem appears to be an overstatement, if not an outright falsehood, according to a USA Today study of Nielsen data from the 2016 and 2017 seasons. 

While the timing of the decline certainly supports Trump’s premise that the protests hurt the NFL’s television ratings, USA Today’s review of comScore data from 2016 and 2017 suggests the effect was minimal, if it existed at all. 

USA Today mostly ignored data from home market games because those ratings were, on average, 16 percent higher than other games and not representative of the overall trends. The newspaper also focused in on specific markets, noting whether they went for Trump in 2016 or his democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.

NFL players have been protesting since 2016 with the goal of fighting inequality 

NFL players have been protesting since 2016 with the goal of fighting inequality 

NFL players have been protesting since 2016 with the goal of fighting inequality 

While the research did support a ‘weak’ Trump effect, it more often pointed to football factors, such as the success of the local team.

So while it’s true that the five markets where NFL ratings saw the biggest decline all voted primarily for Trump – seemingly lending credence to the idea that the protests caused the ratings to fall – they also happened to occur in markets with struggling franchises.

For instance, the Arizona Cardinals fell to 8-8 after losing star running back David Johnson to a wrist injury, and NFL ratings dropped in Phoenix 27.9 percent; In Houston, where ratings fell 25 percent, the Texans finished just 4-12 largely due to season-ending injuries to quarterback DeShaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt; and as NFL ratings fell in Indianapolis by 21.5 percent, the Colts were finishing 4-12 without quarterback Andrew Luck, who was recovering from a shoulder injury. 

In Houston, where ratings fell 25 percent, the Texans finished just 4-12 largely due to season-ending injuries to QB DeShaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt (pictured)

In Houston, where ratings fell 25 percent, the Texans finished just 4-12 largely due to season-ending injuries to QB DeShaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt (pictured)

In Houston, where ratings fell 25 percent, the Texans finished just 4-12 largely due to season-ending injuries to QB DeShaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt (pictured)

Conversely in New Orleans, an area that was also heavily supportive of Trump, local NFL ratings improved by 12.6 percent while the Saints went on to an impressive 11-5 campaign.

So regardless of a region’s political tilt, ratings improved in areas with successful teams – even when those teams were not on television.

And when the home team was on TV, NFL ratings were even stronger.

In Green Bay, where Trump garnered 60 percent of the vote, the Packers still pulled down a remarkable 43.8 rating locally in 2016 on the four occasions they played on Sunday Night Football. (That’s to say that 43.8 percent televisions in the market were tuned to the Packers game)

Even a less successful Packers team in 2017 still managed to draw a 46.2 rating on Sunday Night Football – the highest of any market over the two seasons analysed by comScore.

According to USA Today, the areas of the country that Trump won by double digits still had the same decrease in ratings as other regions – places that supported Clinton and are less likely to oppose the protests. 

Even in Buffalo, where fans vocally objected to anyone protesting during the national anthem, the NFL Nielsen ratings still jumped 4.4 percent in 2017 thanks to the playoff-bound Bills

Even in Buffalo, where fans vocally objected to anyone protesting during the national anthem, the NFL Nielsen ratings still jumped 4.4 percent in 2017 thanks to the playoff-bound Bills

Even in Buffalo, where fans vocally objected to anyone protesting during the national anthem, the NFL Nielsen ratings still jumped 4.4 percent in 2017 thanks to the playoff-bound Bills. In fact, many conservative areas of the country watched more football over the last two years, which suggests that the protests were not a major motivating factor

Another discovery that suggests Trump’s rhetoric on the issue had relatively little impact comes from the fact that the NFL ratings dropped from mid September through late October at similar rate in both 2016 and 2017.

Trump began hammering the NFL in September of 2017, and the following month, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game when 49ers players took a knee in protest. During that stretch, the league saw its widest-spread protests, and the issue received much more attention than perhaps at any other time.

If Trump’s attacks on the NFL had an effect, then the league’s ratings would have likely dropped at a disproportionately higher rate than they had during that same period in 2016.

According to Richard Lapchick, Chair of DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, those findings are meaningful.

‘It underlines the fact that fans either are coming back or they aren’t going away,’ he told USA Today. ‘Maybe it didn’t have as big of an impact as [Trump] said he did.’

Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence stand during the national anthem prior to the start of a Indiana Colts-San Francisco 49ers game in Indianapolis in 2017. The Pences walked out as members of the 49ers protested during the anthem

Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence stand during the national anthem prior to the start of a Indiana Colts-San Francisco 49ers game in Indianapolis in 2017. The Pences walked out as members of the 49ers protested during the anthem

Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence stand during the national anthem prior to the start of a Indiana Colts-San Francisco 49ers game in Indianapolis in 2017. The Pences walked out as members of the 49ers protested during the anthem

The reality, according to Syracuse University assistant professor Emily Thorson, is that there is not one clear factor that affected the NFL’s ratings. Other issues, such as the NFL’s concussion crisis and the trend of people cancelling their cable subscriptions, likely had an impact, she told USA Today.

Besides, even with the ratings downtick, the NFL still boasted 37 of the top-50 highest-rated television shows in 2017.

And things are looking better for the NFL in 2018. Not only are ratings up about 1 percent overall, but according to Fox Sports executive vice president of league operations and strategy Mike Mulvihillm, fans are watching for longer stretches. 

‘One of the hidden stats in the ratings so far this year is that average length of tune-in is up,’ Mulvihillm told Sports Business Daily. ‘The average viewer that shows up is staying tuned for a longer period of time. Maybe that’s driven by the fact that scoring is up, passing is up, penalties are down, replay reviews are down. All of that adds up to a more entertaining product.’

And if ratings are up because of the product, and not because tensions over the anthem have cooled, then it’s true that football, and not politics, determine the NFL’s television ratings.  

Fans who oppose the protests certainly made their voices heard during games in 2016 and 2017, but the USA Today study suggests the NFL's audience declined for other reasons 

Fans who oppose the protests certainly made their voices heard during games in 2016 and 2017, but the USA Today study suggests the NFL's audience declined for other reasons 

Fans who oppose the protests certainly made their voices heard during games in ’16 and ’17, but a USA Today study suggests the NFL’s audience declined for other reasons

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