NFL Ratings Are Up 17%, Boosted by Fans in Stands and Close Games

NFL Ratings Are Up 17%, Boosted by Fans in Stands and Close Games
NFL Ratings Are Up 17%, Boosted by Fans in Stands and Close Games

Four weeks into the National Football League season, viewership is at its highest level in six years, a rise media executives attribute to competitive matchups and the return of spectators.

The more than 60 games played through Oct. 4—roughly a quarter of the season—drew an average of 17.3 million television and digital viewers, according to data from Nielsen and the league. That is up 17% compared with the same stretch of time last season.

League and sports-media executives said the sight of fans at games has given at-home TV viewers the feeling of a return to normalcy amid the pandemic. This season is also free of the distraction of last year’s U.S. presidential race, they said.

Interest in games also has been boosted by competitive matchups involving top players, such as veteran Tom Brady and young superstars Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. “There’s a plethora of story lines that people are finding appealing,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus.

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The rise in viewership comes after a sharp ratings drop last year, when Covid-19’s spread forced some games to be postponed and to be played in empty stadiums. Even before the pandemic, the league had uneven ratings performances in recent years. Factors weighing on viewership included the overall decline in traditional TV viewing as consumers cut pay-TV packages and the heavy exposure of NFL content after games started being played on Thursday nights. Some fans have said they were turned off when players made social or political statements.

Despite such headwinds, the NFL’s major media partners placed big bets earlier this year on the continuing popularity of football. Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS Inc., Walt Disney Co. ’s ESPN, Fox Corp.’s Fox Sports, and Amazon.com Inc. each signed long-term deals valued at more than $100 billion combined, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“The NFL agreement will turn out to be some of the best commitments these networks ever made,” said Ed Desser, a sports media consultant. “It may be a big bet, but it’s the safest bet.”

Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, struck a note of caution about the early ratings. “While we’re up 17% through week four, it’s hard to believe we’ll sustain that,” Mr. Rolapp said. “We never get caught up in the week-to-week or year-to-year viewership.”

NBC’s Sunday night telecast of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ narrow win over the New England Patriots drew an average of about 28.5 million viewers across TV and digital platforms, making it the most-watched Sunday Night Football game since 2012, the network said. The game had a compelling story line: Mr. Brady, quarterback for Tampa Bay, returned to his former home, where he had won six Super Bowl titles.

The game also came down to the wire, with the Buccaneers notching a 19-17 victory over the Patriots.

NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua said the presence of fans at stadiums was clearly having an impact. “I think the athletes feed off it,” he said.

New Orleans Saints tight end Juwan Johnson celebrated a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers last month in a blowout 38-3 victory.

Photo: Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

There have been 15 games so far this season decided in the final minute of regulation play or in overtime, the most through week four in the history of the NFL, according to league data. Executives believe these nail-biters are keeping viewers around longer, boosting the average viewership of telecasts.

“There’s been a preponderance of close games,” including in the highest profile prime-time contests, said Michael Mulvihill, head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports. “We’re seeing an increase among both younger and older viewers.”

ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast has seen a surge in viewers in its first four weeks, and the network also has been exploring new ways of attracting a broader audience. This season, it introduced an alternate Monday Night Football telecast on its ESPN2, co-hosted by Peyton and Eli Manning, the retired NFL quarterbacks and brothers.

The Mannings’ alternate show, which will take place 10 times this season, attracted 1.9 million viewers in its last installment in week three, according to ESPN. “We’re seeing the ultimate validation after only a couple of weeks. We’re fielding more calls from high-profile people asking to be guests on the Mannings’ show,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of programming and original content.

ESPN’s telecasts that week averaged 14.9 million viewers, the most for that period since 2012. So far this season, Monday Night Football’s ratings are up 20% from last year, and up 22% from 2019.

CBS said its football telecasts averaged about 17.9 million viewers through the first four weeks, up 22% from last year and the highest level since 2014. Fox Sports is the exception: Its viewership is down 10% from the same point in the season last year, primarily because of a lopsided game in week one—the New Orleans Saints’ 38-3 victory over veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers—that quickly lost the interest of fans, according to a person familiar with the network’s ratings.

Write to Lillian Rizzo at [email protected]

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