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Volume 22 No. 31
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NFL and network executives cite quality of play, league’s stars as reasons for viewership wins

Viewership of the NFL playoffs extended the winning streak the league saw over the regular season.
Photo: getty images

Every offseason, Brian Rolapp and other NFL executives sit with their television partners and obsess over the game presentation of America’s most popular sport.

Searching for ways to keep an audience longer and grow TV ratings faster, they tinker with the on-screen presentation — having fewer commercial breaks, quickening pace of play, allowing commercials in a two-box format.

Despite all the adjustments, this year’s across-the-board viewership gains essentially came down to three fundamental reasons:

■ Big stars are the drivers.

■ Close games deliver.

■ Matchups matter.

Sure, it seems basic. But several league and network sources acknowledge their offseason plans have little effect on ratings. It’s what goes on between the white lines that matters most.

The NFL stopped a two-year slide this season, registering a 5 percent viewership increase across all five of its network partners. The gain was a cause to rejoice, considering that viewership had dropped 18 percent over the previous two years and was the center of many negative storylines.

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” registered the biggest percentage gain this season (up 8 percent), followed by CBS and NBC (both up 6 percent) and Fox (up 2 percent for both “Thursday Night Football” and its Sunday afternoon slate). Playoff ratings so far have registered even bigger increases.

Executives with the league and the networks all pointed to the quality of on-field play as the main reason for those gains. This season, the NFL returned to being water-cooler talk after every weekend: Games were closer, more touchdowns were scored, the biggest stars escaped injury, and big-market teams remained competitive throughout the season.

It turned into the perfect elixir.

“I don’t know how overly surprised we are,” said Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer. “Last year, everyone wrote about TV ratings more than we obsessed about it. We always pay attention to them, but it’s not as much week-to-week or year-to-year. It’s about how is it trending generally. … TV ratings really depend on what’s happening on the field, and we’ve had one of the most dynamic seasons we’ve seen in a very long time. It is not a surprise that that’s translated to more interest.”

Network executives seemed almost relieved to cite the on-field action for the ratings gains this season rather than anthem protests or President Trump’s tweets. Networks can promote the games better than any other media entity, but they need the right storylines to make those promotions more effective.

“There were a lot of really good storylines and a lot of young stars driving interest in the league,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, referencing Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, Rams QB Jared Goff and Jets QB Sam Darnold. “We were blessed with competitive and close games in a lot of our windows.”

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News, also pointed to more competitive play in some of television’s biggest markets, another area where the league and networks have no control.

“We had a bunch of teams that hadn’t had a meaningful national audience in a long time that were really powerful drivers,” said Lazarus, citing the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. “Add to that, scoring was up, the games were exciting, the margin of victory was low. All of that added up to a positive season for everybody.”

While so many network staffers are focused on making the NFL’s television productions better, one of ESPN’s top executives said the quality of the games has more to do with ratings performance than anything else.

“I worry more about the game on the field than I do on the length of the game,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “That Rams-Chiefs game could have gone on for another 20 minutes and I would have been just fine with that.”

The 54-51 Rams-Chiefs thriller in November averaged 16.6 million viewers and was the most-viewed “Monday Night Football” game since 2016.

Interestingly, none of the executives cited increased gambling as a reason for the viewership gains. There’s been a theory that sports gambling, which has been legalized in several markets, will increase interest in games. But so far, it has not been a big enough national trend to have an impact on ratings, executives said.

Even though on-field performance is out of the league’s hands, NFL and network executives still try to make the game more fan friendly, which they hope leads to bigger ratings.

Rolapp referenced flexible scheduling, which was introduced into NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” package in 2006, and the “crossflex” between CBS and Fox that was introduced in 2014 as examples of moves that have helped ratings.

“We have obsessed a lot over the last three or four years on game presentation, which I think matters,” Rolapp said. “How do we take away the down time and make our game presentation better?”

As an example, Rolapp mentioned the dreaded “double up” commercial where networks would run a commercial after an extra point and again after a kickoff. Last season, networks had only 11 of those commercial rotations. In 2016, that number was at a staggering 503.

This season, networks ran commercials during 94 percent of official replay reviews rather than keeping a camera on the field as nothing was happening. A year ago, that was at 7 percent, Rolapp said. Networks started using four ad breaks per quarter rather than five, and they started using a double box to show other ads.

Rolapp and network executives say these moves increase the perception that the on-field pace of play is quicker.

“That matters because the rating is not only how many people you get, but how long they stay and how many games they watch,” Rolapp said. “We have to make the game as viewer-friendly as possible.”

Network executives credited the league with creating good schedules, particularly for its prime-time packages, and making minor rule changes to speed up the game.