Compared to what?

Author:Schley, Stewart

Two questions, applied liberally, have helped me ply my trade (or at least fake my way through) as a business journalist.

The first is: "Compared to what?"

It's a context-revealing question. Imagine your cousin skids into the room to breathlessly announce her best-fr!end-from-college's-roommates-fiance has gotten called up by the St. Louis Cardinals and is hitting .210 for the month of May with an on-base percentage of .307!

"Zowie!" you say, feigning interest. Truth is, you don't know a thing about baseball. But she's your cousin, so you play along, duly impressed.

Except: "Compared to what?" A click or two around tells you the median batting average among position players for the Cardinals as of June 1 was .242, and the average OBP was .318. So a bit of quick "compared to what"-ness tells you your cousin's friend's soulmate may have cracked the majors, but unless he steps it up, he won't stay long.

The "compared to what" query comes in handy for evaluating a common theme tied to last year's NFL season, when some fans were angered as a small fraction of players kneeled on the sidelines during the playing of the national anthem while the rest of us stood proudly, caps off, in the stands (unless we were busy buying beers and nachos, because: commerce). It was tempting for some of these individuals to point to declining NFL television ratings as proof positive fans were on their side, willfully abandoning the game.

And it's true that NFL television ratings were down last season, by a blended average of 9.7 percent year-over-year, per Nielsen. (Or at least, NFL ratings as reported by antiquated measurement methodology were down. Actual audience levels are under-reported because of the inability to accurately capture viewing on tablets, smartphones and internet-connected TV sets. But that's another story.)

But what if we asked our question?

If we widen our contextual perspective, we discover a telling fact: All television ratings were down. According to the media industry investment research firm MoffettNathanson, the total number of network TV viewers 18-49 (a key NFL demographic) plunged 26 percent year-over-year in last year's third quarter and 16 percent in the fourth quarter--time periods that mirror the NFL regular season.

Which means, if you're following along, that in skidding by 9.7 percent, the NFL actually out-performed television in general.

This realization runs contrary to the narrative that the NFL suffered huge damage as...

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