Fewer people watched the opening week of National Football League coverage than they did last year, a decline TV executives chalk up to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
Cable news and the Weather Channel almost tripled their audiences in prime time and grew fourfold during the day, according to data from the networks, drawing fans away from football. “Thursday Night Football” was down 13 percent, and Sunday games on Fox and CBS also declined. “Sunday Night Football” on Comcast Corp.’s NBC, featuring the arch-rival New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, was a rare bright spot.
A drop in viewing last year caused consternation at league offices and the major media companies that count on the NFL to deliver the biggest audiences on TV. Executives blamed several factors, led by interest in the presidential election and a poor slate of games. Pro football drew $4.2 billion in regular season ad sales last year, according to Kantar Media and SMI Media Inc.
Eager to get off to a good start this year, the league responded by scheduling more appealing match-ups early in the season. That didn’t work last week, and networks are now pointing to the weather.
Analysts, investors and advertisers will keep an eye on early-season ratings to see if last week’s hurricane-related drop is an anomaly or continues last year’s troubling downward trend. The NFL has proved resistant to the pressure affecting entertainment programming: the growing number of people who watch TV on demand rather than live, including some who don’t pay for TV at all.
“All eyes will be on this season’s ratings trends,” Michael Nathanson, an analyst with MoffettNathanson LLC, wrote in a note before the season started. “Why do we care so much about the NFL? Well, that’s where the money is.”