It’s hard to believe it was just three seasons ago that NFL executives and their television rights partners were sweating out a sudden decline in broadcast ratings.
Remember? In 2016, the NFL was coming off an all-time high in average viewership, with its game telecasts across NBC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN averaging 18.1 million viewers in 2015. The NFL had become comfortable watching its television audience steadily grow through the years — the average viewership in 2008, for instance, was “just’’ 14.6 million.
But the league’s television appeal took a blindside hit early in ’16 because of several factors, two more impactful than the others: the presidential election, which siphoned viewers to cable news, and the stark response from one side of the political spectrum to NFL players such as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick choosing to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
Average viewership dipped to 16.5 million in 2016, then the real fallout occurred in ’17, when it dropped to 15 million. But three years after commissioner Roger Goodell and the assorted Scrooge McDuck owners (I’m thinking of Jerry Jones here) began fretting about the league’s image and apparently waning popularity, the only casualty from the entire situation appears to have been Kaepernick’s NFL career.
Turns out that 15 million number in 2017 was the bottom of the valley. Viewership rose in 2018 to 15.8 million, and this season it jumped 5 percent year-over-year across all nationally televised games, back to that familiar number of 16.5 million.
No, the 2019 average viewership is not equal to the 18.1 million of the halcyon days of 2015. But when considering that it’s just the television viewership and that the NFL also saw a 51 percent rise in digital audience this season, averaging 487,000 viewers across all digital outlets, it’s clear the NFL is as healthy as ever, even as it picked up a few scars along the way.
Overall, per Nielsen Media Research, more than 182 million people watched an NFL game during the 2019 regular season. Forty-six of the 50 most-watched shows this past fall were NFL games. (The other four programs? Game 7 of the World Series, the LSU-Alabama college football game, Clemson-Ohio State, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Surprisingly, “God Friended Me’’ did not crack the top 50.)
The most-watched NFL broadcast of the season was the Cowboys-Bills Thanksgiving Day matchup (32.6 million) on CBS. Two Patriots games cracked the top five: the Week 12 matchup on Fox with the Cowboys was second (29.9), and the Week 14 game on CBS versus the Chiefs was third (28.3).
None of the NFL’s broadcast partners was left out of the fun. Every one saw a jump in viewership this season, among other achievements.
NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’’ remained the most-watched prime-time program on television for a ninth straight year, averaging 20.5 million viewers, a boost of 5 percent from 2018. That extends its record for the most consecutive years ranked as the No. 1 program in prime time (since 1950). It also had a 75 percent larger viewership than the most-watched scripted program of the fall, CBS’s “NCIS.’’
Fox’s Sunday afternoon games averaged 18.3 million viewers, up 7 percent from last season, while its late-afternoon window, branded “America’s Game of the Week’’ and seemingly featuring the Cowboys every other Sunday, averaged 24.4 million viewers to rank as the most-watched overall show on television for the 11th straight year. Fox also saw a leap on “Thursday Night Football,’’ which earned a 6 percent rise to 15.1 million viewers.
CBS’s Sunday afternoon games averaged 17.3 million viewers, its most-watched NFL season since 2016.
And over on cable, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football’’ package also rose 5 percent, to an average of 12 million viewers.
Goodell and his underlings must be thrilled. The narrative about falling ratings amid a social controversy now weighs on a different professional sports league, with the NBA seeing shrunken ratings in the months after the China drama.
The NFL has television ratings back on the rise, and not terribly far from their pinnacle at a time in which viewers have more options than ever for consumption. The playoffs and Super Bowl — which should draw approximately 100 million viewers for Fox on Feb. 2 — guarantee that 2020 will get off to a fast start ratings-wise.
And if there’s any further doubt about how appealing the NFL is as a television property, further confirmation is not too far in the future. ESPN’s eight-year, $15.2 billion — yes, with a b — deal is up in 2021, while the CBS, NBC, and Fox deals — which cost the networks $27.45 billion in total — expire in 2022.
If the league continues to dominate fall ratings — and there is no reason, even with its often self-inflicted problems, that it won’t — the next television deals will redefine massive. And networks far and wide will be lining up to pay.