The data comes from a poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. It shows that the NFL’s core audience and the demographics it can usually count on are rapidly tuning out of the big games, and things are only heading downhill.
The number of adult viewers who say they closely follow the NFL has dropped a total of 9% since 2014 according to the poll. It’s even worse among men from 18 to 49 — the league’s most reliable audience. In 2014, 75% of men in the demographic said they followed the NFL closely. Today, that number has dropped to 51%.
“If I'm the NFL I'm freaking out about that a little bit,” Republican pollster Micah Roberts told The Wall Street Journal. “They are the very core of the football-viewing audience. If they're retreating, then who's left?”
Unfortunately for the NFL, the poll didn’t question why the participants were dropping football from their lives, leaving the league to guess which of their controversies or scandals is turning people off.
In 2016, TV ratings were down 8% overall for the NFL, though at the time they blamed that on the contentious presidential election, which dominated the national psyche at the time.
In 2017, they lost an additional 9.7% in TV ratings. Many have inferred that the biggest contributing factor to that loss is the highly politicized protest of the National Anthem, led by Colin Kaepernick. Conservative viewers were outraged by the growing number of players who knelt during the Star Spangled Banner in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
In addition to that, many of the NFL’s biggest stars suffered injuries and sat out a good portion of the season, alienating those viewers who tune in for fantasy draft results or hero worship. Not to mention of course the growing concerns about concussions and long-term health risks to football players, of which there is mounting evidence.
One fan told the Wall Street Journal that he and his friends are turning more and more to College Football to get their fix. “You watch the guys playing college ball, and I feel like they are trying a lot harder and you get a better game,” said 29-year-old Tim Muzzy. “I don't hear the talk about [pro] football as much as I used to.”
Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, defended the league in a press conference before the Jacksonville Jaguars’ playoff game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
“We always want ratings to go up, but we're 37 of the top 50 shows, which is higher than ever,” Goodell said. “We're likely to be the No. 1 show on Fox — excuse me, on all of television, the Fox Sunday afternoon game. Sunday night, prime time is for the seventh year in a row the No. 1 show. Thursday Night Football is No. 2.
“I think dominance of the NFL in television is still very clear,” he concluded.