Analyst Predicts Higher Ratings for Prime-Time NFL Broadcasts

As the National Football League gets set to kick off the 2017 season, analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson Research is predicting that ratings will be up in primetime, reversing last year’s surprising declines.

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Nathanson sees NBC’s Sunday Night Football rising 5% in total viewers and ESPN Monday Night Football up 11% based on stronger matchups on their schedules.

Down the road, Nathanson said, there could be a shakeup in NFL rights deals, mainly because the Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN is paying much more -- $1.9 billion per year -- for its Monday Night Football package than Comcast’s NBC pays for Sunday Night Football -- $960 million -- even though the Sunday night generates much higher ratings because it gets better matchups.

The NFL is also giving better matchups to shore up its Thursday Night Football packages on NBC and CBS, diluting MNF, he says. Rights fees for those Thursday games are also cheaper than ESPN’s MNF.

When those deals expire in 2021 and 2022, “Disney would be wise to drop MNF and focus on all their energy and resources on securing the preferable SNF package, which is now nearly $1 billion cheaper and includes three Super Bowls,” Nathanson said. “This would then potentially force NBC into bidding for either the CBS AFC package or the Fox NFC package.”

That bidding would drive up the fees and open the door to new bidders for MNF, including either Turner or a digital player like Facebook, Amazon, Google or Apple.

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The season starts Thursday night (Sept. 7) with the champion New England Patriots taking on the Kansas City Chiefs..

Last season's NFL ratings were down 12% up through Election Day (Nov. 8, 2016). They were down 5% the remainder of the season. Reasons for the declines included increased interest in political news, bad matchups resulting in more blowouts and even quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel in protest during the national anthem.

Despite the ratings drop, ad revenue wasup 3% last year to $.35 billion for the NFL season including the playoffs and Super Bowl, according to research company Standard Media Index.

Nathanson noted that for TV, the NFL represents a big chunk of both ratings and revenue. Last year, NFL game and other football programming — including the Super Bowl -- represented 60% of Fox’s live plus same day P2+ GRPs. It was close to 30% for NBC, ESPN and CBS.

The season, Nathanson said, based on pre-season power rankings of the 25 best matchups, nine are headed for CBS, eight for Fox and seven for NBC. ESPN has only two of the top 25 matchups. CBS also has the largest share of the bottom 25 matchup, he noted.

On Thursday night, the average power ranking of the teams involved has improved. NBC’s schedule shows the biggest improvement. CBS’s power ranking is unchanged and the NFL Networks matchups are weaker than last year.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.