John McGrath

John McGrath: NFL’s slip in TV prime-time ratings a cause for debate

Tampa Bay kicker Roberto Aguayo (19) hits the game-winning field goal against Carolina during Monday night’s game.
Tampa Bay kicker Roberto Aguayo (19) hits the game-winning field goal against Carolina during Monday night’s game. Charlotte Observer

Television ratings for the NFL are down. I don’t mean just slightly down, but “what-the-heck-has-happened?” down.

While viewership is stable for the traditional Sunday afternoon schedule, prime-time contests are lagging from last year by double-digit margins. Thursday night has dropped 15 percent, Sunday night 12 percent, Monday night 16 percent. Among the demographic of 18-to-49 year old viewers most craved by advertisers, overall prime-time ratings have declined 14 percent.

There are many explanations for the deterioration of the audience size. In no particular order, they include:

▪  Saturation. When Monday Night Football debuted in 1970, it defined must-see TV. For that matter, the Monday Night Football halftime show was must-see TV, because it contained highlights of Sunday games blacked out in local markets.

Almost five decades after Monday Night Football compelled fans to stay at home with a bowl of popcorn, the special nights of the week during autumn now are Tuesday and Wednesday — the only evenings a pro or major-college game is not on TV.

▪  Unappealing matchups. This past Monday found 1-3 Tampa Bay taking on Carolina. The Panthers went to Super Bowl 50 as the NFC champs, but — this just in — that was last season. The 2016 Panthers fell to 1-4 after committing four turnovers in a sloppy, 17-14 defeat to the Bucs.

As Tampa Bay and Carolina were slogging it out on ESPN, the Indians were pushing the Red Sox toward playoff elimination on TBS. That game preceded the Giants’ 7-6 victory over the Cubs in a 13-inning thriller.

But even when the NFL manages to arrange a prime-time contest between a pair of popular teams, ratings slip. That was the case Sunday night, when a duel featuring two former Super Bowl winning quarterbacks — the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning — took second billing to a different kind of contest.

Which brings us to...

▪  The election! However flawed they are as potential presidents, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have a knack for getting people to watch them trade insults. Their first two debates posed scheduling conflicts with NFL games, and the NFL finished a distant second both times.

▪  Public relations. Between the lifelong consequences of concussions sustained on the field, and several high-profile cases of domestic violence off the field, the NFL has been challenged to market the sport as healthy family entertainment.

And to think: Pete Rozelle, regarded as the most influential commissioner in the history of American pro sports, was a public-relations man before his appointment as NFL czar.

▪  The maelstrom over the National Anthem. It’s clear some fans are boycotting the NFL (and the products of its sponsors) because of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players protesting incidents of police brutality by refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner.

The gulf separating working-class television viewers and millionaire pro athletes has been widening in recent years. Whether you perceive Kaepernick as a social-justice pillar or a punk disrespecting the nation that enabled him to accrue a fortune, we can agree on this much: The controversy Kaepernick created has made the gulf wider than ever.

Well, most of us can agree on that. The NFL acknowledges nothing of the sort. An internal memo sent the other day to all 32 teams, co-written by two league executives, addressed the obvious: “There is no question the unprecedented interest in the Presidential election is impacting prime time ratings.”

The memo concluded: “It is worth noting that we see no evidence that concern over player protests during the National Anthem is having any material impact on ratings. In fact, our own data shows that the perception of the NFL is actually up in 2016.”

In other words, don’t pay attention to public-opinion polls that point to the anthem controversy as a kind of last straw in an already frayed relationship. Don’t listen to anybody grousing about how tolerance gave way to intolerance. Don’t go there.

Trust us: Although fans might be distracted by the presidential race, the TV viewers will tune back because they love the NFL more today than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow.

What gibberish.

“Our own data” is not necessarily the most deceitful three-word phrase in the English language, but when written as part of an NFL memo, it ranks right there with “let’s do lunch.”