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NFL Ratings: Not Dead Yet

NFL logo/shieldFor the previous two years, would-be pundits acted like the barrow-man collecting dead bodies in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, throwing the NFL on the heap in the cart despite its protestations of “I’m not dead yet!.” Unlike the Holy Grail, where the old man was “helped” with a strong whack to the head, the NFL and NFL ratings have jumped off the cart looking increasingly hearty.

Ratings from the 2018 regular season show a 5% increase, compared with decreases of 10% and 8% the previous two years. Combined with a substantial ratings increase for the playoffs so far, and the NFL juggernaut appears to be coming up to speed. Recent doom and gloom aside, it is still a ratings powerhouse – it was just slightly less dominant in the previous two years.

Better Teams in Bigger Markets

It is likely much of this is simply due to team improvements and upgrades of matchups. Teams having good seasons and making the playoffs in 2018 after missing in 2017 are the LA Chargers (#2 Nielsen DMA), Chicago (#3), Dallas (#5), Houston (#7), Seattle (#13), Baltimore (#26), and Indianapolis (#28). These replace Buffalo (#52), Jacksonville (#42), Tennessee (#27), Pittsburgh (#24), Carolina (#23), Minnesota (#15), and Atlanta (#10).

The seven new 2018 playoff teams came from markets that on average rank 12th in population.  These replaced 2017 playoff teams that came from markets that on average ranked 27th in population. Making the reasonable assumption that playoff contention increases interest in and viewing of a team, the compounding of larger markets and higher interest levels certainly doesn’t hurt the NFL.

Even though it believes in franchise parity, the league is much healthier with its big market teams doing well. To paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all teams are equal – but some are more equal than others.

The return of teams with a national following, like Dallas and Chicago helps, and Pittsburg was competitive until the final week of the regular season. Even teams that mostly looked hapless – like the NY Jets and NY Giants in the #1 TV market – drew audiences to see their rookie franchise saviors (Sam Darnold and Saquon Barkley, respectively) play.

Factors Outside the Lines

Certainly other external factors unrelated to competition have had their impact. Matchups for Monday and Thursday night games were judged much improved over previous years. This season saw little in the way of the national anthem controversy nor the issue of brain injury for players, which may have affected viewing the past couple of seasons. Even the move of the Chargers (from DMA #29 San Diego) and the Rams (from #21 Saint Louis) to the L.A. (#2) market may finally be paying off as indifferent Los Angelenos begin to root for their returned franchises.

And the NFL is subject to the same forces that are impacting viewing overall. These include the long-term impact of Peak TV, fragmentation of viewing, and the siphoning off of viewing time in favor of other media like videogames. Their ratings are indeed down on a net basis over the past few years despite the revival this season. But just like the broadcast networks or ESPN, the NFL still commands a dominant – even if decreasing – audience and will continue to command premium rates for the networks that carry its games.

David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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