Week 3 will be the first NFL weekend in 15 years without Drew Brees (hand, 6 weeks), Ben Roethlisberger (elbow, season-ending) or Eli Manning (benched) starting a game at quarterback. Andrew Luck (retired), Nick Foles (clavicle, 10 weeks) and Sam Darnold (mono, 4 weeks) will all be sidelined this week, as well; and Cam Newton’s (foot) status for Sunday is currently deemed questionable.
The rash of early season injuries to players at the league’s most prominent position would seemingly pose a threat to its television ratings – when viewership dropped by – 10% back in 2017, it was acommonnarrative within the media to blame the decline on injuries to star players (see: Luck, Rodgers and Watt) – but a closer look at the ’17 season indicates that the depressed fan interest was the result of many of the league’s most popular franchises experiencing down years; 6 (Dallas, Green Bay, Denver, Seattle, Chicago and Washington) of the 10 most popular clubs (based on website traffic) missed the post-season. Former CBS president Neal Pilson said that “over the course of a season, the loss of a given quarterback or even a couple of quarterbacks will not have a measurable impact on national ratings.”
Howie Long-Short: Players getting injured is part of the game. While it’s undeniable that star power commands media attention, Pilson explained that viewership behavior is really impacted by “the wins and losses of the league’s most popular teams, the match-ups and the quality of the games. Ratings are going to rise for a game that goes to overtime and decline for a game that ends 40-0, regardless of which quarterbacks are playing.”
The NFL’s position as the most watched league – by a mile – all but guarantees that even if the most popular teams falter or a series of nationally televised blowouts were to occur and ratings were to fall off, broadcast rights fees will grow in the upcoming round of negotiations – which is why Pilson hesitates to compare ratings on a week-to-week or even a year-to-year basis. The former network executive says that “in terms of the value delivered, the NFL is an overwhelmingly dominant television property. Networks and sponsors all understand that there are no alterative options. There is no other league in the U.S. that can deliver the audience size and attractive demographics that the NFL can.” For perspective, the NFL pulled down 67.1 ratings points in week 1 (excluding NFL Network). The second ranked television property generated less than 20 ratings points.
NFL ratings are up +5% across the board through 2 weeks. Pilson believes that the increased media attention on off-season events (think: combine, draft, training camps) has positively impacted early-season fan engagement. The league’s renewed focus on “Sunday and Monday night matchups and its ability to move games between networks on Sunday afternoons, which has allowed networks to clear much larger coverage for key games,” have also helped to boost ratings. For reference purposes, in 2017, the NFL and NBC did not swap out a single SNF broadcast and margin of victory was 14+ points in 10 of the 18 games.
Fan Marino: Luck’s retirement just prior to the start of the season lowered expectations in Indianapolis, Newton’s injury has dampened spirits in New Orleans and Darnold’s diagnosis has let the air out of Jets fans’ sails, but the excitement level remains high in New Orleans, Jacksonville and with the New York Giants as Teddy Bridgewater, Gardner Minshew and Daniel Jones are next in line. On a national level, the performance of those clubs moving forward is relatively inconsequential; none are top 5 draws.
The same can’t be said about Pittsburgh. While Steeler’s fans are hopeful Mason Rudolph is the heir-apparent to Roethlisberger, should he struggle it could impact league ratings. Pilson said “Pittsburgh is the one team that is both important to the NFL and could experience a decline in national attention if they start losing.”
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