The NFL is eating TV as its ratings soar 7% to the second-highest ever, averaging 17.9 million homes

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NFL regular-season games averaged 17.9 million viewers, tied for the second highest since averages were first tracked in 1995.

Buoyed by increases of at least 24% in two of the five packages, the first year of the league’s new television contracts saw a total increase of 7% from last season.

The highest average on record is 18.1 million from 2015.

And football is dominant within the wider TV landscape, as well, remaining a cultural force able to capture linear audiences that have largely abandoned other programming in the cord-cutting and streaming eras. In 2023, NFL games made up 93 of the top 100 rated broadcasts, according to Nielsen ratings, with all top 20 spots going to NFL games. The Oscars, once a live TV ratings bonanza, clocked in at number 60.

Sports have always been critical to both the linear and cable and TV businesses. But rarely has one single product so clearly buoyed an entire industry. Many of the last holdouts of cable television self-identify as “sports viewers,” according to research firm MoffettNathanson, and cord cutters come overwhelmingly from cable subscribers who don’t regularly watch sports. And this season, the NFL expanded its roster of broadcast partners to include a streaming partner, after signing an 11-year deal with Amazon Prime worth an estimated $1 billion a season.  

Hans Schroeder, the league’s executive vice president of media distribution, pointed to the number of teams still alive for postseason spots going into the final two weeks along with close games throughout the 18-week regular season. Of the 272 games, 113 were decided by six or fewer points, the second most in league history.

Over the past two seasons, 55.8% of games have been within one score (eight points).

“It starts on the field. You look at the number of close games as well as the number of young stars like (Houston’s) C.J. Stroud and old stars like (Los Angeles’) Matthew Stafford that probably didn’t get enough coverage,” Schroeder said. “If you look at that as well as combine with the first year of these new TV packages and some of the flexibility they had, I think that is why the numbers are where they are this year.”

Four of the five broadcast and streaming networks saw increases in their overall packages.

HUGE GAINS ON THURSDAY NIGHT

According to Nielsen figures, the 16-game “Thursday Night Football” package on Prime Video averaged 11.86 million viewers, a 24% increase over last year’s inaugural season. All but three of the weeks saw double-digit increases over last year.

Showing the power of streaming, the median age of Prime Video’s audience was 48.5 years old, 6.9 years younger than the average median age of viewers watching the NFL on Sunday (55.4).

Two games saw more than 15 million viewers — the Nov. 30 matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys (15.3 million) and the Sept. 14 opener when the Philadelphia Eagles hosted the Minnesota Vikings (15.1 million). The most-watched game in 2022 was the opener between the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs (13.0 million).

Overall, 12 games averaged more than 10 million, doubling 2022.

MONDAY NIGHT MIRACLE

Amazon Prime looked like it would run away with the biggest gains, until the “Monday Night Football” numbers came in. The league’s seminal prime-time package had its best season since 2000, averaging 17.36 million viewers across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, a whopping 29% increase.

Most of that increase, though, can be attributed to the Hollywood writers and actors strikes. With no new original fall programming, ABC was able to broadcast games all 18 weeks of the regular season — or 11 more compared with last year — instead of just nine over eight weeks as originally set when the schedule was announced in early May.

Next season, ABC is expected to go back to at least two Monday night simulcasts with ESPN, three exclusive MNF games when there are doubleheaders and the two Saturday Week 18 contests.

Overall, it was the best season since the package moved to ESPN in 2006.

The four most-watched games since 2000 all happened this season. The Nov. 22 game between Philadelphia and Kansas City, a Super Bowl 57 rematch, averaged 29.03 million.

MOMENTUM FOR CBS

CBS averaged 19.35 million, its most-watched regular season since it returned to the network in 1998, and an increase of 5% over 2022.

The 10 Sunday national game windows at 3:25 p.m. Eastern averaged 24.64 million, an increase of 4.7% from the 23.50 million of last year.

The Thanksgiving Day game between the Washington Commanders and Dallas Cowboys was the most-watched regular-season game on any network, averaging 41.76 million.

CBS will have Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

SUNDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” package had a 21.4 million average, its best viewership since 2015, and an 8% increase over last year.

The package had six games average at least 25 million, tying the mark set in 2013.

The top game was the Sept. 7 opener between the Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs, which drew 27.5 million.

FOX’S 30TH SEASON

Fox saw a 2% gains drop in its overall number (19.42 million) but the late window was up 2% (24.62 million). That is the best performance in the 4:25 p.m. Eastern late games since 2015 despite blowouts on seven of the 10 dates.

The Thanksgiving Day contest between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions was its most watched, averaging 33.7 million.

The NFL on FOX caps off its 30th regular season with its best national window since 2015.

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