NFL ratings start strong
League and broadcast executives had to be thinking “here we go again” as the NFL kicked off its season with a lightning delay that ensured low ratings for its opening game.
A moribund preseason had registered a double-digit viewership drop, and after regular-season viewership had dropped 18 percent over the last two seasons, the NFL Kickoff game between the Eagles and the Falcons posted viewer numbers that were down 13 percent compared to the previous year. When that game was followed by a taunting tweet from President Donald Trump, sports executives steeled themselves for another tough season on the ratings front where they, again, would have to answer questions about the NFL’s long-term health prospects.
As it turns out, they didn’t have to worry.
NFL ratings quickly rebounded and at the quarter point of the season are up slightly compared to last year. After that start, a scant 1 percent viewership gain never felt so good.
A pass-happy league with wide-open offenses and gunslinging young quarterbacks, combined with far fewer player protests, has helped to stabilize viewership, according to several top television executives.
“We got off to a difficult start with a 45-minute weather delay in Philadelphia that hurt our opening number,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “Short of that, we’d be in a stronger position.”
Overall, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is down 1 percent compared to last year through the first four games, a significant turnaround considering how soft its opening night ratings were.
“We thought we’d be a little bit behind where we are now at this point, so we’re pleasantly surprised,” Lazarus said. “But we’re not shocked. It’s the strongest product in the land. … We’re feeling even more bullish on where we would be than what our real number is because of that little handicap and how much that affects our average rating with this few games in the bank.”
CBS is setting the pace with its Sunday afternoon schedule showing a healthy 8 percent jump. CBS has benefited from strong games, including an AFC Championship rematch between the Patriots and Jaguars and, thanks to cross-flexing, a highly rated NFC matchup between the Saints and Giants.
“It’s still early in the season, so nobody should jump to conclusions,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “But the trend is positive.”
Viewership for the three “Thursday Night Football” games is up 1 percent from last year; Fox’s Sunday afternoon schedule is down 2 percent; and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” schedule is down 4 percent, though ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro said his network’s schedule is back-loaded, with the traditionally highly rated Cowboys, Patriots and Giants still with games to play.
“When we look out at what’s to come, we’re pretty optimistic,” Pitaro said. “We’re in a good spot right now … When you compare the first four games to where we were at this point two seasons ago, we’re actually up.”
TV executives point to reasons why NFL ratings have rebounded this season, with each network citing young quarterbacks, such as the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Browns’ Baker Mayfield.
“Every leaguewide statistic related to the passing game is tracking at a record high,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy. “If we’re in this year of the quarterback, it makes for a really compelling cast of characters at what’s probably the most significant position in sports. The efficiency of the passing game, the characters that you have at that position, that’s helping keep people tuned in a little longer.”
CBS’s McManus agreed, adding that rule changes that helped open up NFL offenses this season are helping the ratings. “It’s like home runs in baseball — people like seeing touchdowns,” he said.
The executives also said the player protests that have been a big part of the past two seasons have not materialized as a storyline this season.
“It’s largely a resolved issue,” Mulvihill said. “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 on it.”
NBC’s Lazarus agreed. “People who decided that they were going to leave left,” he said. “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.”
McManus believes the fact that protests have not become a regular story in the league is one of the reasons for the ratings rebound.
“One of the things that our research has showed is that when people are watching football games, in a perfect world they view it as an escape,” he said. “They want to get away from the politics and the other storylines that are dominating the media landscape.”