The NFL and its TV partners received an early indicator Thursday that last year’s ratings comeback was real.
The kickoff to the 2019-20 season on NBC scored 22 million viewers, despite the game being a lackluster 10-3 win for the Green Bay Packers over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago. Another 627,000 viewers streamed the game. The TV audience was up 16% over last season’s opener.
The encouraging data from Nielsen comes after the league saw a 5% uptick in ratings last season — with regular season games averaging 15.8 million viewers — after two straight seasons of audience erosion. The decline raised questions as to whether the country’s top viewing attraction was getting caught up in the same downward trend affecting traditional TV usage and the impact of other factors, such as the controversy over players participating in social justice protests during the playing of the national anthem.
The ratings performance of the NFL is more vital than ever to CBS, NBC, Fox and the Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN, which collectively pay $5.62 billion annually for the rights to carry the games. The NFL is the most dependable programming for attracting mass audiences who watch live as younger viewers flock to streaming platforms to watch their favorite sitcoms and dramas.
According to the media analyst firm MoffettNathanson, NFL games and the programming surrounding them account for 63% of the live viewing on Fox during the football season. The figure is 25% for CBS and ESPN, and 24% for NBC.
Ad revenues for NFL telecasts in the 2018-19 season came in at $3.28 billion, a slight decline from 2017-18, according to Standard Media Index. While ratings for the season were up, pricing for advanced advertising sales were likely adjusted downward due to declines in the previous two years.
But advertisers’ confidence in the NFL’s ability to deliver big audiences was renewed after last season’s bounce back. Ad Age reported advance sales for commercial time were up 5% to 10%. Fox is getting more than $800,000 for a 30-second spot for its Nov. 24 game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots.
“The marketplace is very vibrant right now,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus.
So how does the NFL keep the momentum going? Based on last season, the best defense against declining ratings is more offense, according to Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president for research and league operations at Fox Sports.
“The biggest factors in the viewership increase is that you had an eruption in offensive efficiency, “ said Mulvihill, who noted that most offensive categories were at or near record levels last season. “There is a more aggressive philosophy being taken by head coaches that is also contributing to a more entertaining product. The number of two-point conversion tries last year was the highest in 25 years. Fifty-six percent of fourth-down tries resulted in a first down. That makes for a few more exciting moments every game.”
Interest in the NFL is also being lifted by the infusion of a new generation of star players into the league, such as Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“A couple of years ago when the ratings were down, we were in a post-Peyton Manning period when there was a dearth of exciting young players,” Mulvihill said. “Now it feels like there is a lot of young talent in the glamour positions that we haven’t seen in a while.”
Mulvilhill believes Fox is positioned to have a stronger year thanks to a schedule that pits the NFC East teams — which include the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants — against the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. The match-ups among the league’s most iconic franchises happen only every three years.
The networks have also gotten the NFL to allow them to offer their own Sunday afternoon game at the same time a local market team is playing a home game. The NFL’s blackout rules had long prevented a competing game from airing against a local market home game telecast, which left 10% of the country without two games to watch on Sundays.
“The number of blacked-out windows this year will be about half of what it was in previous years,” Mulvihill said. “Windows that previously did not have a game will have a game, and it will only help. It’s more football.”