One of the storylines early in the NFL season has had nothing to do with the actual games on the field.
Fewer people are watching the games on television this season, as evidenced by noticeably lower ratings. Despite the fact that the NFL has said publicly it isn’t worried, rest assured its a source of considerable hand-wringing for the league, team owners and their television partners.
The question for those who would like to see legal sports betting in the US: Could the ratings dip lead to a change in how the league approaches wagering on its games?
The ratings decline for the NFL
The ratings drop so far this season has been more than just a blip on the radar. Numbers are down 15 percent year over year, including for Sunday night’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals that somehow ended in a 6-6 tie.
TV ratings, of course, are pretty much the most important thing going for the NFL; the league makes a huge chunk of money from doing deals with networks to broadcast its games.
Everyone has hot takes on why the ratings decline is happening, blaming it on everything from the election cycle in the US, to player protests during the national anthem, to the Chicago Cubs’ run to the World Series.
Is it a confluence of all these factors, or something much simpler?
The almost universally derided Sunday night game was followed up by a Monday night game between the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans that many found to be less-than scintillating as well.
6 field goals and 0 TDs over last 6 quarters of national TV games but let’s just focus on the election and anthem protests.
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) October 25, 2016
If events outside the NFL’s control are really causing the ratings drop, the league obviously has nothing to worry about. But if the problem is with the product itself, that’s a problem.
What if the NFL ratings dip persists?
Right now, it doesn’t appear that the NFL is going to do anything too reactionary.
But if the ratings don’t rebound in the second half of the season — after the election is over — the NFL will likely think it has a real problem on its hands.
The problem with TV ratings is that it will be difficult for the NFL to wave a magic wand and fix them, if competing theories are proven false. If the games and the teams playing in them aren’t as interesting to fans as in past years, a flip can’t be switched to make them better.
One of the few things the NFL could do? Embrace legalized sports betting, or at least stand aside to let it happen.
There is no doubt that fans having a monetary interest in a game increases fan engagement and has a hand in TV viewership, to some extent. After all, the American Gaming Association estimates that $90 billion will be wagered on NFL and college football this season, most of it illegally.
Despite the fact that the league has always been publicly against US sports betting, at least some owners apparently see the folly in that. And no matter what the league says, it can’t possibly have its head in the sand so much as to be unaware that betting on its games helps to drive interest.
It’s not hard to imagine that a legal sports betting environment in the US would instantly increase TV ratings. And if things continue to look bleak for viewership numbers, one would assume the NFL will look at all options to stem the tide.
The case for and against the NFL changing on sports betting
The NFL doesn’t do much of anything quickly. To think it is going to change years of saying legal sports betting would one of the worst things ever — overnight — is perhaps foolhardy.
Just last week, Commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated the league’s position against sports betting.
But the league is terribly conscious about its image and what the public thinks of it. (See changes in how it approaches concussions/CTE and domestic violence issues, for example.)
If the NFL senses that fans are simply watching less because of the product it puts on field, and it thinks sports betting will help, one can definitely see the league changing its tune.
Regardless, a sustained dip in ratings would have to manifest before that outcome becomes likely.
Maybe the games will just start improving in quality and marquee value, and people really aren’t watching NFL games for a variety of reasons. In that scenario, all of the concern over ratings will be a momentary blip on the radar.
But if not, expect a larger push for sports betting from the interests inside the NFL that have no problem with it becoming legal in the US.
It’s not like legal sports betting is right around the corner, no matter what — a Congressional effort is just getting under way. But that effort would get a good boost if the NFL were in its corner.