The Maddeningly Incomplete Story About The NFL's TV Ratings Rolls On

Viewership is rebounding, but there's still an untold story about who watches the NFL, or in the modern-day, bets on it via the recently legalized online bookmakers in multiple US states. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

In a past life, as some have gathered, this Scribe worked on the business side of advertising and television while also moonlighting as a sportswriter. As a research analyst, the job required deep dives into appropriate data sets. Whether it was pulling consumer behavior survey data for an automotive client or looking at how competing TV networks scheduled their shows versus one another, an analyst works with a single objective. It’s to provide evidence and proper context to whatever story needs to be told.

Which is why the manner of how television ratings and viewership – which are separate numbers, believe it or not – is discussed can be equal parts fascinating and frustrating. The stories bellowed through the first few weeks of this season feel incomplete, just as they have been through the last few seasons.

Earlier this week, USA Today dropped an exhaustive analysis of the NFL’s viewership over the last two-plus regular seasons. With assistance from insights companies such as comScore and Nielsen, the authors attempted to correlate local market viewership with how said markets voted in the albatross that was the 2016 Presidential election. The local dive accurately reminded readers that it helps to field a good football team in any market, regardless of size.

However, when you consider the demographics in how Americans voted two years ago, the analysis leaves something to be desired.

The NFL ratings discussion, which I’ve contributed to in previous seasons for Awful Announcing and The Week, has been top of mind for football fans and media nerds because of this President’s bizarre fascination with ratings. When you see reports about the prior week and how the aged 25-54 audience differed from a year before, they assume that every 25-year-old and every 54-year-old are just faceless bodies in an advertiser’s target market that don’t have unique relationships with media and entertainment. Just as how every slot machine is different despite all being in the same casino, viewers of the same game are unique from one another because they have different levels of engagement with the sport.

The problem of viewership analysis in any capacity, including sports, is that whether we like it or not, our demographic backgrounds and personal beliefs play dominant roles in what we choose to watch. Respectfully, this is something that most white Americans haven’t had to concern themselves about as not only have they historically been the ‘default setting’ for content development, but they also run the media companies that provide the content itself. They are also the journalists that poke through the data – or to be honest, copy and paste select lines from press releases from the league and its partners.

The data we often see never goes deep enough to explore who’s watching, but instead it’s pushed out there to confirm the status quo.

It seems that the closest any observer from the major outlets who has acknowledged the demographic divide with the NFL is Mark Leibovich, who discusses it some in a new book, Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times. On a recent appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, the New York Times chief national correspondent reminded people that the league’s huge numbers on television is based on an overwhelming white (and male) audience, despite most of its players being black.

Yes, there’s no question that quality of play has the largest impact in the national addiction to the league, but to say that the political and social discord surrounding the league hasn’t played some role for some people is a little disingenuous. The politics of the majority, whose political clout is the norm in America, may not be affected, but plenty of minority football fans have heard, if not directly participated in the debate over supporting the NFL for a few years. Even before anyone ever heard of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL shot itself in the foot with domestic violence investigations that compelled some women of all races to rethink their viewing habits – enough for steady declines between 2014 and 2017. And in the advent of the political turmoil that surrounds the league, black and Latinx NFL viewership had changed in response. (Asian NFL fans consists of a very small piece of the viewership pie, but fluctuations with their viewership are nothing to take for granted, either.)

In this third straight year of headlines about its viewership, those who have the access to the numbers – as journalists and analysts – routinely ignore the importance of minority NFL fans. By not asking if Kaepernick’s exile from the league, the President’s venomous comments about black sports figures or even commentary from fans about the protests might play a role with how minority fans consume the product, it diminishes the demonstrated impact minority Americans have on the league’s TV numbers over the last few years.

There’s a good chance you’re reading this and wondering why anyone should care about this at all, whether you are glued to the screen or watching reruns of The Office instead of football. It’s a fair question because we media people have conversations about ourselves with ourselves by ourselves at all times. And yet, we tend to not have the right discussions about the people that pay attention to what we do. We don’t acknowledge that issues of representation in media go beyond just putting more color, gender and sexual preference on our screens. Analyzing the habits of minority consumers has allowed multiple media companies to flourish, even as linear television viewership has dropped across the board for years. Disney, through ABC and Marvel, have dominated the TV and movie arenas in a way their competition still struggles to keep pace with. Netflix, through sheer will and billions in leveraged dollars, has given more screen time to non-white heterosexual male talent in the last few years than, well, anybody.

So in short, congratulations are in order to the NFL. Per usual, your Sunday afternoon games had more people watching than the cheap infomercials and 80s movie marathons on networks that aren’t trying to compete against football. And thanks to the electric play of Patrick Mahomes, the emergence of Baker Mayfield, the mudhole stompin’ Rams, and the brilliance of a few 30-something future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, plenty of fans and bettors have plenty more to smile about than others versus a year ago.

But be mindful that every Tuesday during football season when those press releases and quick reactions flood your timelines, you should start asking about who continues to make the NFL the most popular entertainment company in the United States. Unfortunately, too many in this media trade won’t.

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