Why This NFL Season Could Be a Billion-Dollar Bargain

Super Bowl
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If the TV audiences for week 1 of the new NFL season are anything to go by, TV network chiefs will be pleased as punch. 

The final season before the new NFL megadeal kicks in comes at a significant discount versus the 79.5% total increase the football league extracted from negotiations with TV partners in March 2021, with each TV network partner paying around a billion dollars less this year than they will next. 

In even better news for TV execs in charge of sports, the first week of NFL fixtures saw audiences for all of the Sunday and Monday games reach highs not seen for several years. With the continued decline of awards shows depicting a stark contrast in fortunes for networks, a win in the modern age is to be celebrated. 

In fact, the only game not to top 2021’s audience highs was Thursday’s blowout between Super Bowl favorites the Buffalo Bills and the current Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams. In truth, blowout or not, the clash would have struggled to best last year’s opener between Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fresh off Super Bowl victory, against the Dallas Cowboys. 

That took place this season on Sunday Night Football (NBC making sure to retain rights) and propelled the audience to the highest seen since 2017, with an increase of 5.7 million viewers (+32.3%), which will have the NFL's TV partners hoping Brady plays on until his 50s. 

It’s for these reasons that the potential swan-song season for Brady sees his team tied first with the Kansas City Chiefs for the most televised (or streamed) games. Of note: Dallas Cowboys are third on the list, with 14 of their first 17 games on air, but with their star quarterback going down with a thumb injury in the season opener, ruling him out of the next month or so, network execs may be nervously eyeing the schedule. 

Of course, such ratings gains are not without some caveats. Up until 2020, the late Sunday afternoon slot alternated between CBS and Fox each season, as it does for the rest of the season. In 2021, both networks aired a game, leading to a greater total audience. But this still grew in 2022, up by 3.8% versus 2021’s initial dual game slot. 

As a side note, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the networks and the NFL come to an agreement in the future for the late-afternoon slot to be constant, or at least more frequent, on both CBS and Fox. Much as the league came to terms on ABC multicasting select Monday Night Football games for the 2021 season, it can be demonstrated that the overall reach of the audience will be greater and deliver more viewers for the networks over the course of the season cumulatively. 

The second caveat is for Monday Night Football. 2021 saw the first instance of ESPN multicasting games on ESPN2 and ABC for the season’s first MNF. This substantially grew the audience, as not everyone has cable but many more do have access to the broadcast networks. Still, just as we saw for the late Sunday game, 2022 recorded audience growth of 2.8 million (16.4%) with the comparable game from last season. 

The NFL will use this success to justify the high increases in its rights kicking in next year. It demonstrates the unique ability of football to maintain large audiences in the modern era of fragmented viewing. More important, the start to the season suggests the NFL is a TV unicorn.  

Last year’s viewer increase was explained as due to happy crowds being back and the pandemic dying down. But to see TV audiences grow for a second straight year? That is almost mythical in the age of fading ratings