Why NFL Ad Revenue is Down Despite Improved TV Ratings

Last season’s ratings troubles still dragging the NFL down in the money department

The NFL’s TV ratings have certainly gotten its groove back in 2018.

Following two years of declining TV ratings amid worry over the long-term connection between football and head trauma, and the heated discussion over players protesting the national anthem, the NFL has proved this season that a lot of people still like their pigskin.

And yet, as TV ratings have improved, advertising revenue for the league’s TV partners was down 19 percent through the first two months of the season, according to Standard Media Index. While some of the decline for October can be explained by fewer games this year compared to 2017 (27 vs 31), the NFL aired 51 games during September and October in both 2017 and 2018.

So, what gives?

The issue is two-fold. Because of the NFL’s declining ratings during the 2016 and 2017 — the league saw TV ratings drop 10 percent in 2017 — that led to advertisers paying less for early-season commercial time. Most ad rates for live sports are based on the prior-year trends, meaning that NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN couldn’t charge as much. There were also fewer physical ads, with the number of 30-second commercial spots in September and October declining by 6 percent compared to 2017, as TV networks increasingly find ways to air advertisements without breaking away from the game action.

“The effects of the lower audiences last year are spilling into this season, as NFL revenue is down,” said James Fennessy, CEO of Standard Media Index. “Nevertheless, as the market reports improving viewership, we will see how these trends change over the remaining months of the season.”

Through 12 weeks (ratings for Week 13 are not yet available outside of “Thursday Night Football”), the NFL is averaging 15.8 million viewers on TV, up 5 percent vs 2017.

The league is on pace to smash virtually every offensive record, setting all-time in highs through 12 weeks in points (8,502), touchdowns (980) and touchdown passes (625). There’s been a large number of closely contested games, as well. Through 12 weeks, 51 games have been decided by three points or less, tied with the 1999 season for the most through that time frame.

Last week’s “Thursday Night Football” game between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints drew 22.2 million viewers, making it the most-watched game in the history of “TNF.”

Should the ratings continue to improve over last year, it’s likely that November and December, where fewer ad spots are purchased ahead of time, thus allowing for the TV networks to incorporate the increased viewership in their ad rates, will make up for at least some of the decline. That’s not even including the playoffs and Super Bowl LIII, which take place early next year.