Throughout its season of dismal ratings, the NFL has been placing the blame on the election and swearing up and down that once the election was over, viewers would come rushing back. Well, it’s now a month after Election Day, and the data is in: the NFL was right. At least, to a point.
The league’s post-election viewership is up significantly compared to what it had been prior to the election, according to Nielsen data. That by itself is not particularly surprising — NFL ratings have seen bumps after Election Day before. But the increase this year is more than double what it was after the last two presidential elections.
Since Election Day, NFL viewership has gone up an average of 15%. In 2012, viewership was up 7%; in 2008, the election more comparable to this one in terms of viewer interest, it was up 8%. (Strictly speaking, the league actually saw a decrease in viewership of 5% following Election Day in 2008. But that decline was almost entirely attributable to “Thursday Night Football,” which at the time began only after the election and was shown just on the then-fledgling NFL Nework.)
One factor that could explain the bigger boost this year is that this season’s Thanksgiving slate of games was exceptionally good, both on the field and in the ratings — the game Fox broadcast pulled in record ratings. But Thanksgiving is always one of the year’s most watched football days, and even when the Thanksgiving games are removed from the analysis for all three years, the trend still holds.
Numbers like these will most likely make the NFL and its broadcasting partners very, very happy. And they could also make the election the patsy for the ratings problems this season.
But this data doesn’t tell the whole story.
Viewership is still down 10% across the board for the league, so the election wasn’t the only reason the numbers took a hit this season and the lack of the election now is not the only reason the numbers are currently seeing a lift.
It increasingly appears that there is not one single thing behind the NFL’s dip this season, but instead a confluence of different problems piling on each other.
One of the problems early on was simply a lack of exciting games, and just the fact that the season is drawing to a close helps to solve that, because now many games have real playoff implications, giving even casual fans a reason to tune in.
Paradoxically, the fact that so many teams are mediocre — which may have hurt ratings early on — could also be helping now, as it has kept the divisional and wild card races tight, with most teams (sorry, Cleveland Browns fans) still having a shot.
Plus, a season that lacked both star power and excitement early on now has improved on both fronts thanks to established stars like Tom Brady and Russell Wilson pushing towards the playoffs and up-and-comers like Dak Prescott and Derek Carr leading hugely popular teams to big winning records. That gives fans reason to tune in to see scores, and more importantly to follow the whole late season narrative.