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NFL Dip: Scary, Not Apocalyptic

As fans of The Walking Dead continue to recover from a frighteningly shocking baseball- bat beat-down to two protagonists in the show’s seventh-season opener, some sports-industry observers are closing their eyes in fear over the scary decline of ratings for National Football League primetime telecasts.

Indeed, the audience for ESPN’s NFL Monday Night Football is down more than 20% compared with last season. While ESPN’s NFL games remain among the most-watched shows of the week on cable, the 8.5 million viewers garnered by ESPN’s Oct. 17 Arizona Cardinals-New York Jets game was only good for seventh place among all shows airing during the week of Oct. 17-23.

The week’s leaders were the aforementioned The Walking Dead episode on Oct. 23, pulling in 17 million viewers, and the Oct. 19 third and final presidential debate, which drew 11.3 million viewers to Fox News Channel.

Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football primetime games are down double-digits year to year as well. Afternoon contests, too, are down by single digits.

Some see those numbers and wonder if the NFL’s run as the darling of TV sports ratings may soon come to an end.

Yet while wounded, the league has plenty of life in it still. There’s no doubt that the intense presidential campaign and the Chicago Cubs’ historic run to the World Series have helped sack NFL ratings at night. It seems clear NFL telecasts will see a ratings bump as the political season comes to an end and the march toward the pro-football playoffs begins.

Advertisers don’t seem to have a problem with the NFL’s lackluster TV ratings performance, according to Broadcasting & Cable, with one unnamed advertiser saying, “It’s nothing we’re freaking out over” and “The networks are working with us and right now; we are still in a good place.”

Sports media consultant Lee Berke notes that football fans are watching NFL games on a variety of platforms that aren’t effectively being measured yet. “Every game is offered live on three or four different screens, but we’re not measuring anything on a realtime basis except for one screen,” he said.

Despite increased platform viewing and strong competition, Berke said NFL games remain among the highest viewed programs on television. “Regardless of the up-and-down nature of the ratings, the NFL on most weeks generates enormous viewership above and beyond any other platform. Advertisers seem to be fine with the ratings ... they’re still getting far more viewership at the right time of year than any other category of programming.”