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NFL Preview: Broadcasters Look to High Scores, Young Stars to Sustain Ratings Gains

The National Football League’s regular season kicks off Thursday night with a mouth-watering encounter between the Green Bay Packers, led by Aaron Rodgers who has a point to prove, and the Chicago Bears, boasting a formidable defense.

However, while fans won’t have to wait long to find out whether offense or defense will come out on top in Chicago, one thing that seems likely is that offense will dominate the league once again in 2019, after an astronomical number of touchdowns and offensive yards helped the NFL to a ratings rebound in 2018.

2017 saw an alarming dip of 10% in totalviewers for the NFL — but the league bounced back across the board last year with NBC up 6% to just over 19 million viewers with “Sunday Night Football,” ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” up 8% to 11.6 million viewers, and Fox and CBS’s Sunday afternoon games up 2%.

“We’re coming into the season with high expectations,” says NBC Sports group president Pete Bevacqua. “We never predict ratings but we’re confident we’ll again deliver good numbers.”

While last season didn’t quite return the league to its previous ratings heights, executives hope that steering clear of off-field issues, a policy which they say also played a part in 2018’s success, will lead to another year back in the green.

“We are best off when we’re talking about the game that’s being played on the field,” says Fox Sports’ executive VP of research, league operations and strategy Mike Mulvihill. “The more we’re talking about what’s going on inside those white lines the better we are and the better I think we’re serving our audience.”

But sticking strictly to on-field events may not be enough to dull the effects of issues outside of the broadcasters’ control. The issue of politics and the NFL is threatening to rear its head again as a result of the partnership deal recently inked between Jay Z’s Roc Nation and the league. At a recent press conference to announce the deal with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Jay Z, who had previously condemned the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick and its reaction to his symbolic kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality, was cagey about how the former 49ers quarterback reacted to the agreement.

Add to that the surprise retirement of one of the most watchable talents in the league in Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, and the fact that Super Bowl ratings slid last year and the halftime show seems to be the least wanted gig in music, and the ratings picture for the upcoming season may not turn out as rosy as the networks would like.

However, focusing on the game itself, Mulvihill says that he doesn’t see any reasons why the NFL won’t continue its upwards ratings trend.

“What we saw last year was a real rise in offensive productivity, more offense, more scoring closer games, coaches being bolder in their decision making and the emergence of a generation of young stars that frankly had been missing for a few years,” he says. “I think that all the elements that produced a ratings increase last year are in place this season; we have reason to be optimistic.”

Two of the most exciting of those young stars, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, happen to play in two of the smaller TV markets around the league. While it would no doubt be of more benefit to the ratings if they played in New York, Los Angeles or Dallas, Mulvihill points out that playing in a smaller market hasn’t stopped New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees or Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers from being “numbers drivers.”

The Browns snapped a streak of historically terrible seasons last year, and the potential of Mayfield forming a tasty relationship with wider receiver Odell Beckham Jr has both Browns fans and TV execs enthusiastic.

“One of the games I’m truly looking forward to this year is the Cleveland game, to have the Browns, who have struggled for so long, on Sunday night football is great for us, great for Cleveland and that team,” says Bevacqua, referring to the Browns’ matchup with the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 22.

Another factor which is a new addition to the NFL this year and could have an impact on ratings in the long run, according to both Mulvihill, is the legalization of sports gambling.

“This is the first season where we have legal gaming in a growing number of states, it’s hard to predict what that impact might be, but it’s probably fair to say that it’s going to be a lot greater five or ten years from now,” explains Mulvihill. “I think it will draw fans deeper into the game,  it’s a great tool for increasing engagement and a more engaged viewer is obviously more likely to stay with us for a longer period of time, which should help the ratings.”

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