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Volume 25 No. 236
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Network Execs Talk About Why NFL Ratings Are Up This Year

NFL ratings were up 1% after the first four weeks of the season, paced by an 8% jump in CBS’ Sunday afternoon lineup. THE DAILY spoke to four top sports media execs about the gains this season, and all four said ratings most likely have been helped by exciting games filled with a lot of offense, with each exec specifically mentioning Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. They also agreed that the storylines around the league’s young QBs are creating more interest. Below are their responses, edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why are NFL ratings up this year?
CBS Sports Chair Sean McManus: I sense more excitement about this season because of some of the storylines. Going into the season, the young quarterbacks were a very good storyline. It’s happening in Kansas City, where Patrick Mahomes is an attractive storyline. What’s happening with the Los Angeles Rams is an attractive storyline. I sense there’s a little more buzz about the overall league this year, which I think is being seen in the television ratings.
NBC Broadcasting & Sports Chair Mark Lazarus: It’s pent-up demand. Live television matters more than ever. Old stars are back and playing well. New stars are emerging like Mahomes and Giants RB Saquon Barkley. Games have been exciting and close. If you look at the standings, it’s competitive on every level. Whether it’s parity or mediocrity, it’s competitive and that’s really fun.
ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro: Look at the storylines. Most obvious is this crop of young talent, like Mahomes, Rams QB Jared Goff and Barkley. Eagles QB Carson Wentz came back. There are some really great stories in the NFL right now. The young quarterbacks is the most obvious storyline. But it’s not just the young quarterbacks. There’s a lot of good news coming out of the NFL right now. If you look at the booths across the various networks, we’ve all done a good job at celebrating this sport and focusing on the fun.
Fox Sports Exec VP/Research, League Operations & Strategy Mike Mulvihill: One of the hidden stats in the ratings so far this year is that average length of tune-in is up. The average viewer that shows up is staying tuned for a longer period of time. Maybe that’s driven by the fact that scoring is up, passing is up, penalties are down, replay reviews are down. All of that adds up to a more entertaining product.

Q: Are you surprised by the turnaround?
McManus: I don't get too up when the ratings are up, and I don't get too down when the ratings are down. It’s still early in the season. Nobody should jump to conclusions. The trend is positive.
Lazarus: It’s stronger than we thought. We thought we’d be a little bit behind where we are now at this point. We’re pleasantly surprised. But we’re not shocked. The NFL is the strongest product in the land.
Pitaro: No, I’m not surprised. What’s fascinating, and I think of often when I’m watching as a spectator, is that we provide a platform for these iconic moments. Mahomes' left-handed throw against the Broncos was quintessential “Monday Night Football.” As soon as it happened, you knew it was going to take on a life of its own. To see what happens post-game and how these amazing moments that so often take place on “Monday Night Football” enter the zeitgeist, it’s fun to see.
Mulvihill: Coming into the season, we were hoping and expecting that this would be a stabilization year. Whatever has happened to impact ratings over the last two seasons has been absorbed and processed by fans and that this would be a year of a new normal. Four weeks in, I feel like that’s where we are. You can say that across all the networks.

Q: What effects have protests during the anthem had on NFL viewership this year?
McManus: It hasn't been a storyline for this season. It seems to have dissipated. One of the things that our research showed is that when people are watching football games, in a perfect world it would be an escape for them. They would get away from the politics and the other storylines that are dominating the media landscape. It hasn’t been a story. It hasn't been something that we have to talk about on a regular basis. From a viewer interest standpoint and a ratings standpoint, it’s probably positive.
Lazarus: People who decided that they were going to leave left. But I also think that some of those people maybe felt like they made their point and now their love of football is overriding it and they are coming back.
Pitaro: I’m not going to speculate on the impact of any of that. It’s speculation. I don't have any research or data to make a point in either direction.
Mulvihill: That collection of issues has been so extensively discussed and debated over the last two years, that everybody has had an opportunity to process it and come to their own opinion and conclusion. I don't think that there are a lot of fans out there that are now considering it differently. It’s largely a resolved issue. That’s one of the reasons we are seeing stabilization in the numbers. There’s not a lot of new information there for fans to digest. Everyone has reached their own conclusion.