Ratings for the previously reliable TV staple, Monday Night Football, continue to slump, causing concern at ESPN and the NFL. The program, which used to be one of the most watched prime-time broadcasts in the nation, has seen rating slowly decline in recent years. This week’s lackluster rating of 6.5, which is the lowest since the program moved to ESPN from ABC in 2006, is cause for alarm with both the cable sports bellwether, as well as the National Football League.
The decline in viewership can be attributed to various factors, including a content rich environment, the increasing availability of “on-demand” programming from free and pay television networks, and the increasing market share of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu..
Contract renegotiation periods between the networks and the NFL are still several years off. ESPN, FOX, NBC, and CBS will begin those talks with the league in 2021 and 2022. It’s a safe assumption that the drop in ratings, especially among the key 18 – 49 age demographic, will provide additional leverage for networks to bargain for lower licensing costs for the one-time powerhouse Monday night broadcast.
Additionally, a continued slump in the ratings may result in networks taking a pass on the rights for Monday night games all together. Though unlikely, it’s no longer an unthinkable outcome, if none of the networks believes it to be profitable.
It is unclear at this time what the league or the networks might be planning to boost ratings. TV networks depend on advertising revenue, which is dictated by ratings. The league depends on TV licensing revenue as a primary revenue stream.
Traditional programming can often be helped with scheduling tweaks and other tactics. Sporting events are time-locked and scheduled over a year in advance in some cases, and scheduling adjustments are nearly impossible due to venue constraints and ticket sales. Due to their very nature, sporting events are also not given to other strategies for boosting viewership, such as gimmick casting, (although this was tried with the addition of comic Dennis Miller to the broadcast crew as a color commentator in 2000, a stint which lasted two seasons. It has been reported that Miller beat conservative radio stalwart Rush Limbaugh, among others, to land the spot.)