fb-pixel Skip to main content
Bob Ryan

10 theories why NFL TV ratings are down

The Patriots have been flagged 52 times this season, 19th in the league.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File 2016/Globe Staff

In the not-too-distant past there were three certainties in American life: 1. Death; 2. Taxes; 3. The unquestioned supremacy of the National Football League as America’s sport of choice.

Nothing much has changed with 1 and 2. But No. 3 is a bit under siege. NFL football is still No. 1, no question. But if TV ratings are any indication, there has been a bit of a change in the air. Clearly, something is going on.

There are many theories to explain the significant decline in NFL TV ratings, but it’s clearly stating the obvious that there is no one thing but rather the accumulation of many things that have accounted for this startling phenomenon. And it is startling. I don’t recall anyone, anywhere, predicting anything like this before the 2016 NFL season began.


The way I see it, there are 10 factors. You may disagree.

1. The Kaepernick effect

We must take people at their word. Untold numbers of people say they have stopped watching because they are offended by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, as well as any accompanying protests.

2. RedZone factor

I simply go by what people tell me. I do not have the RedZone channel. The only time I have ever seen it is when I am at a public eating and drinking place and I happen to see it on some big screen. I am not interested in the RedZone channel. But from what I gather many of my fellow Americans most certainly do have the RedZone channel and they are practically addicted to it. They no longer watch a game in its entirety. Therefore, they do not aid a game’s rating. I make no value judgment. If that’s what you like to do, who am I to tell you to stop? Go for it.

3. Cutting the cord

Many of my fellow Americans — especially millennials, I am told — no longer watch conventional TV at all. They prefer to get their programming via other means, and are quite content to forgo the vaunted big screen for a portable device that suits their particular chosen lifestyle. I cannot relate to this. I like big screens for my sporting events. If my wife would allow it I’d have one the size of Wyoming. Again I say, if that’s what floats your boat, go for it. And I absolutely do not care what it does to the ratings.


4. Star quality

Peyton Manning is gone. He rode off into the sunset clutching a Lombardi Trophy. Tom Brady was forced to sit out the first four games of the season (you may have heard something about that). Some people are citing these facts as a conceivable reason for the early-season decline in ratings. Me? I think this is a major reach. But we’ve all heard it.

5. Saturation

Aha! One of the great advantages professional football has always had over baseball, basketball, and hockey is that the paucity of games made each one a mini-event. 162 baseball games. 82 basketball games. 82 hockey games. Until 1970, NFL games were played exclusively on Sunday afternoon. You geared yourself for the weekly event. Then came “Monday Night Football,” and that was itself another event. Now we have Sunday afternoon, Monday night, Sunday night, and the Thursday night edition of “Sunday Night Football,” something you and I would call, well, Thursday night football. It’s the same number of games, but they don’t seem so special anymore. They just don’t. I’m sorry. America doesn’t need Thursday night football, and that’s before pointing out that every coach and player hates these games. Way to go, owners. Let greed besmirch your precious product.


6. Matchups

Only the hardiest and most myopic of NFL fans can look the rest of us in the eye and say this has been a truly interesting season. There are far too many blah teams and far too many ho-hum matchups. The NFC is particularly hum-drum.

7. Not football as we knew it

In the eyes of many, the game has become wussified. The league has suddenly developed some safety religion, and as a result the big hits that so many tuned in to see have been reduced, and when they occur there is generally a flag. Many of us think this is a proper, enlightened approach to what is essentially a barbaric exercise to begin with, but others decry this approach, saying that the league has become glorified two-hand touch, etc. Allied with this is the general concussion issue. I have long maintained that the mothers of America could shut down football tomorrow by saying of their male offspring, “He’s not playing!” Is it possible concerned and/or disgusted parents (yes, even males) have decided the game is just too violent and dangerous and they’ll find something else to watch? I’m just asking.

8. Flags

It has become exasperating. Quite often, the best offensive strategy is to chuck it downfield and see if you can get a call. You’ve got to have pass interference, of course, but the way it’s called nowadays is perplexing, especially when the ball is in the air and both would-be receiver and defender are simply going for it and there is contact and there is a flag. And some of these teeny-tiny touches that merit flags remind me of the insane touch fouls 40 feet from the basket that infest college basketball. I don’t know, perhaps some viewers have said, “No mas!”


9. Pass, pass, pass

400 yards passing is the old 300. Or even 250. First and goal. Let’s pass. Pass, pass, pass. Maybe I’m just old school, but I’ve always thought the most beautiful play in football was the great breakaway run. Oh, to see Gale Sayers again. Or how about Jaguar Jon Arnett, the man of whom it was once said, “He would run 50 yards to gain 5”? Give me a little more balance in the offense. Tell me. Am I alone in this?

10. The Donald vs. Hillary

Many people believe this bizarre presidential campaign has “distracted” the populace in their pursuit of leisure. I’m not buying it. More than ever, I want to get away from politics for a while.

All this said, I am mystified. That’s because two major reasons why the NFL has soared in popularity remain in place. I refer to betting and fantasy. Has interest in either of these activities diminished? Shouldn’t they be keeping the customers satisfied? What am I missing here?

It’s possible the whole issue will prove to be totally bogus in crunch time; i.e. the playoffs. Is anyone seriously suggesting the Super Bowl will cease to be America’s No. 1 communal, yes, event?


Anyway, sure was a fun World Series.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBobRyan.