Nike controversy or no, NFL ratings will probably keep falling

By Cale Guthrie Weissman

September 06, 2018

Tonight is the first game of Thursday Night Football, kicking off the 2018-2019 season. The Philadelphia Eagles will face off against the Atlanta Falcons, with the game airing on Fox. For decades, this was one of the most important kickoffs for the television industry–even when other programming wavered. But over the last two years, regular season ratings have seen an unprecedented decline. At first, it was thought to be an anomaly. Now, not so much.


This season is already embroiled in controversy, what with Nike’s decision to sign Colin Kaepernick for an advertising campaign after the NFL suspended him, yet analysts no longer question whether viewership will go down. Instead, they say TV networks should brace for a continuation of this trend.

A new report from MoffettNathanson looks at the new football viewership trends and notes a distinct shift. Before the 2016 election, viewership was on the up and up. Now, over the last two years, fewer people–from nearly every demographic–have tuned in for the games.

“Last year’s question of whether NFL ratings will rebound turned into whether viewership will ever see a return to growth,” the report says. “Unfortunately, given these trends across the different age demographics, maybe a better questions is whether the declines can be mitigated.”

When the big dips began, some thought other influences were at play. For one, the presidential election was heating up, which could’ve distracted viewers. Last year, with the Kaepernick kneeling controversy unfolding, onlookers could blame these other extraneous factors for the second consecutive drop. But MoffettNathanson writes that such external factors are almost beside the point: “We now no longer debate the reasons for the decline, we just debate the rate of decline.”

This could have huge ramifications for the future of TV. As regular season NFL-TV network contracts end in the coming years, networks will bid on these regular season time slots. But if viewership averages keep dropping, we should expect a shift in how the networks approach these once-coveted deals.

After tonight’s game, we’ll see if the trend continues. But if we take MoffettNathanson’s analysis seriously, it’s not a question of if, but how bad?