The NFL has touted itself as the only bullet-proof TV product in the U.S. for years now. While live TV ratings for traditional shows continue to dip across the board (due mainly to on-demand content, online streaming and an oversaturation of channels) the NFL was thought to be recession-proof. That is, until politics became more cut-throat and more bloody than anything you’ll see on an NFL Sunday.
“The NFL’s ratings were so far down,” then-President-elect Donald Trump said at an early December rally in Cincinnati. “And you know what the reason was? Because this business is tougher than the NFL. Their ratings were down 20, 21 percent, and it was because of us.”
Trump’s football ratings bashing did have merit as – according to Sports Illustrated – CBS’ regional NFL coverage was down 9 percent, Thursday Night Football was down 18 percent, Sunday Night Football was down 19 percent and Monday Night Football was down 24 percent from early September to late-October. Not coincidentally, that time period was the heart of the presidential election cycle, and 2016 was CNN’s most successful year ever, as its ratings jumped 76 percent from the previous year.
The first two presidential debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton drew a combined 37.2 rating (the first debate drew an unprecedented 84 million views), according to Forbes. A key Week 5 matchup between two marquee NFL franchises — the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers — earned just a 10.2 rating when it went head-to-head with the second debate. Three days before Election Day, Denver and Oakland drew just a 10.4 rating (18.3 million viewers) on Sunday night and in the first post-election Sunday night game, the Patriots and Seahawks drew a 12.7 rating (22 million viewers), according to sportsmediawatch.com.
Ratings went up across the board for the NFL in December, a time in which Trump was often radio silent, but political news picked up again to start the new year (President Obama bidding farewell, Trump’s cabinet picks, Trump’s inauguration, political protests), and it would go head-to-head with the NFL playoffs. Again, football lost the battle. Only two of the 10 NFL playoff games this year scored a better rating than the previous year, according to sportsmediawatch.com.
Super Bowl ratings have remained steady this decade, as the NFL typically gets around a 70 percent share of U.S. TV viewership on Super Sunday with a 46.0 rating being the norm in the past few years. The Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Seahawks two years ago was the most watched show in U.S. TV history with an audience of 112.2 million (47.5 rating). Last year’s Super Bowl between the Broncos and Panthers saw a tiny dip in ratings, drawing 111.9 million viewers.
The NFL is surely hoping the return of the Patriots on the league’s grandest stage will help the sagging numbers, but with the unheralded Atlanta Falcons as the other participant, it’s a strong bet that this Sunday’s game won’t set any ratings records.
Trump and football
— President Trump will continue at least one presidential tradition as he will be the subject of a sit-down interview during the Super Bowl pre-game show. FOX, which is broadcasting this year’s Super Bowl, will have Bill O’Reilly conduct the interview and it will air around 4 p.m. this Sunday.
—Trump once owned a pro football team, the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, in the 1980s.
— Trump maintains friendships with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He also recently appointed New York Jets owner Woody Johnson to be the U.S. ambassador to Britain.