The NFL is waking up from its ratings nightmare

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Maddie Meyer/Getty

After a truly terrible start to the season, the NFL appears to have woken up from its ratings nightmare.

Before the end of the election, the average viewership for NFL games had declined 13% year-over-year, according to Macquarie analyst Tim Nollen. And for much of the season, every single one of the NFL’s primetime offerings (Sunday, Monday, and Thursday Night Football) was down double-digits.

People floated a lot of theories as to why, from cord-cutting to injuries to Colin Kaepernick. But the party line at the NFL was that the decline had to do with “unprecedented interest in the presidential election.”

And it turns out, the league might have been largely right all along.

A new report from Tim Nollen at Macquarie shows that the NFL ratings freefall has largely dissipated post-election. The sky, perhaps, is not falling after all.

“After falling sharply earlier in the season, average NFL viewership remains down, but much less so since the election,” Nollen wrote in a note distributed Friday. “Average viewership has been -2% YoY for the six weeks of post-election games, and ratings have been -3.9%. This is much better than prior to the election, when average game viewership was -13.2%. Earlier day games remain a bright spot as the average audience has been +4.7% for the mid-afternoon Sunday timeslots, and primetime Sunday night games have swung from -19.4% to +5.9% since the election.”

Here’s a chart of the state of NFL viewership before the election:

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Macquarie

And after:

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Macquarie

“It’s an encouraging rebound,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN earlier this month. “I think it proves that the election was certainly a factor.”

The quality of the games has also had an effect, Nollen wrote. “Teams with playoff potential and high-fantasy value, like the Cowboys and Patriots, have led the ratings recovery: Average viewership for these two teams’ games, for example, has been +20.2% and +8.1% YoY, respectively, for match-ups after November 8 that aired in the same timeslot.”

But Goodell thinks there are also structural things the NFL can do to boost viewership. “We want to take as much what we call dead time, non-action, out of the game, so that we can make the game more exciting,” Goodell said in November, according to The Times. How? One of the big ideas to improve that Goodell put forth was decreasing the number of ads and changing up the way they appear.

That could be vital to the continued TV dominance of the NFL, since the league does face competition other than the election.

“With a visible improvement in viewership without competition from election coverage, we think it’s clear the ongoing primetime declines are due at least in part to competition from other options, from Netflix/Amazon/Hulu to catch-up viewing of VOD and other content,” Nollen wrote.