Though Ratings Have Been Mostly Down, NFL Still Has Reasons to Cheer

NFL Ratings Decline
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Pushing through adversity has been the name of the game for the NFL since its season started in September. 

Its three marquee kickoff events saw viewership declines versus the year before. The league disagreed with studies suggesting player protests were a factor.

Regardless of what caused the slide, the NFL averaged just under 15 million viewers through 11 weeks, a figure down roughly 6% from the same period during the 2019 season. 

Week 12 was filled with games that mostly drew in fewer viewers than last year’s comparable matchups. 

But not all has been bad. Average viewership during week 6 and 8 this year were up year-over-year, with the Tampa Bay games featuring Tom Brady during those weeks potentially contributing to the increase. Fox’s singleheader during week 12 drew 15 million viewers, an increase of 12% from 2019 and marking the only window of that week to see an increase in viewers. 

Comparisons to viewership last year are imperfect due to this year’s pandemic and election. But they still bolster the claims of NFL critics suggesting the growth of NFL viewership over the full season could slow again or, worse, decline for the first time since 2017.  

That would be significant given the league managed to reverse a worrying trend of declining viewership several years ago. 

But even at this point in the season, which just saw week 12 wrapped up with the first Wednesday game since 2012 due to COVID-19 concerns, it’s worth noting the overall enduring value of NFL games. 

Between the beginning of the season and early November, NFL games represented 26 of the top 30 programs of the Fall season. NFL programming also accounted for all of the five top-rated programs between November 16 and 20.

The Washington-Dallas matchup on Thanksgiving was also the most watched TV program since the 2020 Super Bowl, despite being down in viewers from CBS’ 2019 Bills-Cowboys game.  

This helps explain why CBS recently signaled itsignificant progress selling Super Bowl ad spots, even as reports have surfaced that the league could postpone the championship if delays keep occurring.  

It also helps explain why the collective price of NFL broadcast rights, which begin to expire in 2021, is still expected to rise from $5 billion to as much as $8 billion. 

 November survey conducted by The Athletic among its paying subscribers found nearly 85% of respondents saying they were watching about the same number or more NFL games this year compared with last year. 

If anything, the NFL may be well served by prioritizing reaching new types of viewers, as 81% of respondents to the survey said they were watching at least three NFL games per week.

The Athletic’s respondents might not be representative of every NFL fan, but its figures are one indication that much of the NFL’s core base is sticking with the league through the pandemic.  

The NFL may be able to bring new fans in with other channels of distribution that include digital and new TV networks. In January, Amazon will simulcast the first postseason NFL game on Prime Video, while Disney plans to soon air an NFL game on its female-focused channel Freeform