NFL TV viewership dropped an average of 8 percent this season

ByDarren Rovell ESPN logo
Thursday, January 5, 2017

Broadcasters of NFL games saw television viewership drop by an average of 8 percent for the 2016 regular season, as a typical game was watched by 1.4 million fewer people than last season (16.5 million versus 17.9 million), according to league data obtained by ESPN.

Prime-time broadcasts were the most affected. ESPN's Monday Night Football (17 games) and NBC's Sunday Night Football (19 games, including two Thursdays), the two most costly rights deals, were down 12 and 10 percent, respectively, in total viewers.

Daytime games on Fox and CBS, which each broadcast 27 games, were down 6 and 7 percent, respectively, in total viewers.

Thursday Night Football games were excluded from the data comparison. A variety of factors made the comparison versus last year skewed, including streaming on Twitter and a new partner, NBC..

In an interview last month, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN the data reflected that the United States presidential election was "certainly a factor."

Prior to the Nov. 8 election, NFL games -- through the first nine weeks -- were down 14 percent compared to 2015. But the next eight weeks saw a recovery, as Weeks 10-17 were down only 1 percent in viewers compared to last season.

The Dallas Cowboys' resurgent season likely helped in the turnaround. Dallas (13-3) appeared in four straight prime-time games, beginning with its Thanksgiving matchup against the Washington Redskins. That game had 35.7 million viewers, the most for any regular-season NFL game since 1995.

It's not the first time the league has been affected by a presidential election. Television ratings were down 11 percent for NFL games this year, but they were down 10 percent in 2000 (Bush vs. Gore) and 6 percent in 1996 (Clinton vs. Dole).

League executives aren't attributing the drop solely to politics. In Week 16, the league and its broadcast partners tested moving around commercial pods to help change the pace of the game for the viewers at home, as well as the ones in the stadium. Results of the test have not been released publicly.