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By Drew HarwellFootball, America’s biggest prime-time powerhouse, has been thrust into a crisis this fall, with dwindling ratings sparking questions over whether it can remain a gold mine for television in an age when more Americans are abandoning traditional TV.
Network executives have long used the National Football League’s live games as a last line of defense against the rapid growth of “cord-cutting” and on-demand viewing upending the industry.
But now, the NFL is seeing its ratings tumble in the same way that the Olympics, awards shows and other live events have, falling more than 10 percent for the first five weeks of the season compared with the first five weeks of last season. A continued slide, executives say, could pose an even bigger danger: If football can’t survive the new age of TV, what can?
Football’s traditional TV audience “is never going to be what it was again,” said Brian Hughes, a senior vice president at Magna Global, which tracks audience and advertising trends.
The explosion of modern entertainment options, offered on more devices and at any time, has splintered American audiences and sped TV’s decline, Hughes said. “Sports seemed to be immune from it — it was live, the last bastion of broadcast television. But [the world] has caught up to it now.”
Network and league executives are scrambling to identify causes. Many have pointed to the highly televised 2016 presidential campaign, which has led cable-news ratings to explode.
Election years often thin sports ratings, but the NFL has never seen a drop as dramatic as this year’s, Nielsen data shows. In 2008, for example, ratings over the course of the year declined 2 percent, and in 2000 they declined 10 percent. During the first five weeks of this year, ratings have declined 15 percent compared with the entirety of last year.
In an internal NFL memo sent last week and given to The Washington Post, two league executives, Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz, wrote that “all networks airing NFL games are down” and that “primetime windows have clearly been affected the most.”
They pointed to “a confluence of events,” including the election, to explain the ratings slide. “While our partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings,” they added, “they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue.”
Other weaknesses have plagued America’s most popular TV sport. Some of the league’s top players have retired or have been suspended, including Peyton Manning, Marshawn Lynch and Tom Brady, creating a star-power vacuum that may have driven casual fans away.
The games are now available at more times than ever, including afternoons and evenings on Thursday, Sunday and Monday, which analysts said could fragment the market. And some of the season’s early matchups have been uncompetitive or underwhelming.
“Sports at the end of the day is a narrative. You can’t create it. It’s organic,” said Neil Macker, an entertainment analyst for Morningstar, an investment research firm. “If you don’t have those compelling story lines, people aren’t going to take the time to watch.”
Football last year was still TV’s biggest golden goose, with the Super Bowl and other games locking in many of the most-watched hours on air. Its viewership grew in recent years as ratings fell for many of television’s other genres, including scripted dramas, which are often expensive to produce and yield more limited viewerships.
Some advertisers said they were content to wait and see whether the season’s ratings improved in coming weeks, believing there were few better options among other sports or TV programming on which they could buy ad time.
“In a sea of very low-rated programs, to have the NFL be so dominant even with these depressed ratings, its still something we value,” said Andy Donchin, the chief investment officer for Amplifi US, a division of the ad-buying giant Dentsu Aegis Network.
A fan disrupted the Bears/Lions game on Sunday when he ran out on the field wearing a full gorilla costume and a shirt that read "All Lives Matter" on the front and "Put The Guns Down" on the back. He was tackled, removed from the game and turned over to authorities.