The NFL primetime game ratings have declined year-over-year in all but one matchup, and by double digits in more than half of them. That speaks to a problem larger than going head-to-head against Trump and Clinton in a debate. The causes are multi-varied, and we don’t have a full grasp on all the factors playing into why the NFL, finally, is not the one television product impervious to the decline in traditional television viewers.
One factor that is not going to change when the election ends tonight is this: Peyton Manning isn’t walking back through the proverbial door. The future Hall of Famer retired after a Super Bowl win in February. He is probably the most popular player (and, conversely, one others loved to criticize) in league history. The most similar example would be Michael Jordan leaving the NBA.
I know it sounds crazy to put the retirement of one player among the factors contributing to the decline, but Manning represented so much more. He represented a generation of highly marketable and famous quarterbacks (see Brett Favre) who transcended the hardcore fan. Manning was the NFL’s 33rd franchise, and I wrote about the various indicators of his popularity, and how extreme it was, after the 2014 season.
For example, using the data of athlete endorsement deals, Manning made more in endorsements in the 2013 season than 30 NFL rosters, in their entirety.
In my analysis of fandom based on both Harris poll data and Facebook likes for franchise pages, the Colts’ relative percentage of NFL fans dropped nearly in half, and the Broncos almost doubled in popularity after Manning switched teams (this despite the Colts drafting another first overall pick and immediately returning to the postseason).
Bloomberg News said this after Manning’s loss in the Super Bowl:
“No NFL player has more mainstream appeal than Manning, who is the most trustworthy athlete in the U.S., according to Repucom, a global sports market research agency. He’s also the most influential athlete, ahead of five-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Michael Jordan, and the most well-liked in America, Repucom says.”
So, yes, Peyton Manning would only appear in five or six primetime games a year, and only in three in his final season before missing time to injury. But he was the leading draw for the league, in primetime games, or in late afternoon window games, for the casual fan. He was one of the players that broke through and on whom almost everyone had an opinion.
Compare these notes from the 2013 season to the current ratings issues. In October 2013, the Denver Broncos website noted that five of the 10 highest-rated television programs after Labor Day featured the Broncos. Late afternoon games were drawing more than 25 million viewers, numbers that the networks would kill for this year.
That was before Denver played Kansas City and New England back-to-back on Sunday night in November.
Coupled with last week’s 16.6/27 overnight for Kansas City-Denver, NBC’s back-to-back SNF contests are the first consecutive primetime games (not including NFL Kickoff games) since ‘96 in which a network posted overnight ratings of 16.6 or higher.
The Patriots’ memorable Sunday Night Football victory is the fifth-highest Sunday overnight in the eight-year history of NBC’s primetime package (excluding “NFL Kickoff” games) and ranks second this season behind the 17.3 for Manning’s return to Indianapolis on October 20.
Manning moving to Denver was great theater. Manning versus Brady was always must-see TV. Even last year, when Manning was struggling, people still tuned in and the story of whether he could do it one more time was at the forefront. In fact, the late CBS game window last year featured Manning returning to Indianapolis, and this year featured Indianapolis going to Green Bay. It was down 20% this year.
If you do an overhead look at the passing numbers, there is no indication of a passing decline or offensive dropoff league-wide. In fact, Manning wasn’t even playing particularly well for most of the last 18 months he was still a draw. But it’s not about numbers. Where are the great storylines in the NFL?
Let’s face it, to get those extreme ratings, showing how popular you are, you need to go beyond the small segment of fans that like to break down All-22 footage. You need to draw in the people who would otherwise do something else. It is, at its core, entertainment. Part of entertainment is having an emotional draw to something.
Golden State has the Kevin Durant-joining-the-73-win-team drama. The Warriors will dominate most teams. That’s not great if you are a fan of one of the also-rans, but it will draw in the casual fan. The Chicago Cubs just broke “the Curse,” one of the most enduring sports stories in the country. That broke through and outdrew the NFL in interest.
Manning isn’t coming back. Other than Brady, few players are in the same universe when it comes to drawing the interest and providing an anchor for those story lines. The NFL may rebound when other factors stabilize, but I also wonder if the NFL will reach the heights of popularity that we saw during the Peyton Manning era.