Ryan Mayer

At the midway point of the NFL season, there have been plenty of shiny, fun storylines to discuss.

The Chiefs and Rams running through their respective conferences with fun, high-scoring offenses. The oldhead quarterbacks, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers are all thriving in the latter stages of their careers. Aaron Rodgers doing his normal magic act for the Packers in leading them to comeback wins. Even the trade deadline once again offered us some interesting trades to discuss as contenders and hopefuls made moves to bolster their roster.

All of those subjects have made what was arguably the story of last season, the league’s TV ratings, fly relatively under-the-radar. Yet, through eight weeks of action, the league has seen an increase in ratings across the networks throughout the season.

The overarching “failing NFL” narrative that was pushed in some corners last year seems to have been quieted this season. Why are ratings up? According to Jon Lewis, the creator of Sports Media Watch, there are several reasons.

“One, the product on the field is clearly better this season, that is indisputable. Last year was a very dispiriting year both on the field and off the field,” said Lewis via phone interview. “This year, you have a lot of interesting teams. Kansas City, which is usually pretty boring, is really exciting. The Rams are good. The Packers, though their record isn’t great, you have Aaron Rodgers’ heroics. The Cowboys, frankly, are probably one of the least interesting teams in the league right now which is always good because the Cowboys always have a base level of interest. So, if there are a lot of teams that are exceeding them in interest, then you’re in pretty good shape.”

In addition to the more significant interest than usual in several teams, Lewis believes that the lack of major injuries and large mix of teams that are still in playoff contention has helped the league continue to attract eye balls to TVs this season. That said, though ratings have risen, they aren’t near the peak of a few years ago and there’s one main reason for that.

The league’s performance, as well as television’s performance more broadly, among the 18-49 demographic. However, Lewis doesn’t see much of a path to fixing those numbers simply because the younger generation has more entertainment options at their fingertips.

“I think you’re having younger people who don’t have the same habit for watching sports age into those demographics now,” said Lewis. “For people even as young as 30, you grew up in the era of major sports on broadcast TV. There’s no guarantee that you had cable growing up. You didn’t have the same level of video games, social media or cell phones that the younger generation had growing up. So, even as young as 30, you’re still in the traditional mode of viewing sports. Once you get down to 20, you’re talking about people that grew up in an era of a lot of other entertainment options. So, they probably never got into sports the same way that older millennials and other generations did. As they continue to age into these demographics, I think you’re going to see ratings for sports and traditional TV continue to decline.”

That may seem like a flashing red light and siren for the leagues across the board, but Lewis instead believes sports are even more valuable to broadcast TV because, though the ratings have been lower than normal, they’re still better than other shows.

“The World Series had historically low numbers in adults 18-49. They weren’t the lowest ever but they were in that range. And yet, if you look at the number and see ‘Wow a 3.3 for a World Series game in 18-49, that’s terrible,’ well that is excellent for broadcast television on a day-to-day basis. All of these leagues are going to be fine in terms of money even as the numbers continue to drop.”