What a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, the Indianapolis Colts were bucking the trend in terms of television ratings. Six weeks into last season, the team's TV ratings were up 2 percent over the previous year even though the overall NFL ratings were down nearly 10 percent.
Local media buyers were clamoring for spots during Colts telecasts.
This year, the NFL’s ratings are down again—this time by 7.5 percent after six weeks.
The Colts again are off the curve, but this time, the team is on the wrong side of the bell.
TV ratings for Colts games in the central Indiana market are down a whopping 28 percent the first six weeks of this year compared to the same period last year.
Through Week 6 of 2016, the Colts were averaging a 32.67 rating (350,549 central Indiana households), according to Nielsen Media.
This year, per Nielsen data, the team’s ratings in this market through Week 6 have slipped to 23.48 (251,940 households).
That means nearly 100,000 fewer households are watching Colts games on average this year than they were last year.
Much of the decline likely has to do with the fact that star Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has been out all season with a shoulder injury, and the team has looked pretty bad on its way to a 2-5 start.
Ratings were not yet available for Week 7, but it's a safe assumption that the Colts’ 27-0 loss to the middling Jacksonville Jaguars likely dropped the team’s local viewership numbers by several more thousand households as fans tuned out early.
If Luck doesn’t come back this year—as many pigskin prognosticators are predicting—the ratings in the second half of the season could get really ugly.
Advertisers and media buyers’ smiles from last year have turned to frowns.
“For ad buyers, this is not being a fair-weathered fan. This is about making wise choices for the client’s overall strategy,” said Bruce Bryant, president of locally based Promotus Advertising. “This is a premium buy, and ad buyers are expecting premium returns."
“A 28 percent drop is a substantial drop,” Bryant added. “Any good [media] buyer worth their salt is going to be contacting the TV station and saying we need to talk about some bonuses and adjustments to our schedule.”
The Colts can’t blame the schedule for their plummeting TV ratings. They’ve had one Sunday night and one Monday night game and their opener had a 4:05 p.m. kickoff.
Usually the games with later kickoff times have better ratings than the 1 p.m. games, especially earlier in the season when the weather is still relatively nice and beckons people to the great outdoors on a Sunday afternoon.
The Colts likely were hurt in Week 4 when their game aired on WTHR-TV Channel 13. WTHR at that time was still in a squabble with DirecTV and AT&T over re-transmission fees, so subscribers to those services wouldn’t have been able to see the game without a pair of rabbit ears.
Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward said the ratings should be kept in context.
“Despite the decrease, the ratings for Colts games are still big numbers and have been the top-rated telecasts in our market for their respective broadcast weeks,” Ward said.
Indeed, most shows in this market—including local TV news—have a rating below 10, and in many cases, it’s far below that mark.
Bryant is unsure of the advantages of advertising before a large, disgruntled audience.
“Part of why you buy [the Colts] locally is because you get a better opportunity for an in-game spot and better positioning than a regional buy,” Bryant said. “But you’re also doing it to show you support the team and ride the positive coattails. Now, you have to think, is there much updraft with an audience that is really frustrated watching a team play the way the Colts have?”
It's not just losing that has hurt the Colts, but it’s the way in which the team has lost. The team got shellacked in the opener by the Los Angeles Rams 46-9. They got trounced in an Oct. 1 prime-time game against Seattle 46-18. They got beat by two touchdowns by Tennessee Oct. 16 and got shut out at home on Sunday by Jacksonville.
“In general, television ratings are down across sports, but win/loss records play a big role in viewership numbers,” Ward said. “[TV viewership] during the opener in L.A. dropped pretty fast. We haven’t been 2-5 in 20 years, and this town is accustomed to winning football.”