NFL in ratings league of its own

Super Bowl audience towers over all other sports championships

Thanks to a 300-plus channel universe, the Internet, DVDs and other newer media forms, the eyeballs of America are splintered more than ever these days. But there’s one thing that brings us all together: the NFL.

The Feb. 5 Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots on NBC drew the largest average aud on record for a U.S. program — 111.3 million — marking the seventh straight year of gains for pro football’s championship game. When the same teams met four years earlier on Fox, a similarly competitive contest drew 97.4 million.

How big is the NFL these days? Consider that the 111.3 million who watched the Super Bowl is more than the combined audiences for the most recent deciding games of baseball’s World Series (25.4 million), college football’s BCS title game (24.2 million), basketball’s NBA Finals (23.9 million), college basketball’s NCAA men’s championship (20.1 million) and hockey’s Stanley Cup Finals (8.5 million).

This came on the heels of the conference championship games that determined the Super Bowl teams averaging a whopping 53.7 million — the most for the penultimate round in 30 years.

Of course, it helps that the sport has never been more competitive, including some nail-biter Super Bowl finishes (unlike a stretch a generation ago when the game more often than not was a blowout). But the league has done its part to make sure more viewers see meaningful games season-long, with some key changes to its television packages in recent years.

For example: The Saturday playoff games traditionally skedded for 1 p.m. ET kickoff decades ago were moved to primetime, and one of the conference championships is now also played in primetime; there’s flexible scheduling on Sunday, which shifts games to either the 4:15 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. ET timeslot if the one originally scheduled is a dud; and top-tier teams can appear in primetime up to six times, up from five a decade ago.

As much of a roll as the NFL is on, there are already some questioning the league’s recent decision to add early-season Thursday night games to its television slate.

The matchups in these games don’t figure to be as attractive as the primetime package on either NBC or ESPN — and certainly won’t draw as well, since they’ll air on the lesser-available NFL Network — but is it too much of a good thing?

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