Buffalo Trumps NYC as NFL Finds Biggest Die-Hards in Smallest Markets

·6 min read

If it’s a fall Sunday and you’re a Buffalonian, the odds are good (really, really good) that, come 1 p.m., you’ll be parked in front of the set to watch the Bills on Channel 4 and, for good or ill, your next three hours are accounted for. Maybe you go out and rake some leaves at halftime, but you’ll be back on the couch in time for the third-quarter kick; nearly half of everyone in town is doing the same exact thing you are, week in, week out.

Through Week 10, the Bills are averaging an NFL-high 46.6 household rating in their home market, a generous expanse of Western New York that stretches from Niagara Falls to the Pennsylvania border. (For the uninitiated, a household rating indicates the percentage of TV-owning homes that watched a particular program.) Including 36,000 consumers who have leaned into the connected-TV thing, there are 612,780 TV homes in the area, which translates to an average draw of 285,555 Bills-watching households. That marks a 17% improvement from this time a year ago, when the local team was pulling a 39.8 rating, with an average audience of 243,886 homes per game.

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It’s within the bounds of the smaller media markets that you’ll find the biggest football towns, the places where Americans enact the Sunday rituals with a devotion that flirts with delirium. (They may speak in tongues in Boston and Philly, and prepping for a Saints game sometimes involves what amounts to a kind of papal cosplay, but there’s not a card table in Erie County that hasn’t been liturgically demolished by the well-oiled faithful.) In Kansas City, 44.1% of the TV homes are locked into the Chiefs, and 41.4% of Milwaukee’s brats-and-cheese-hats set are spending Sundays with the Packers. Beaded, beignet-chomping New Orleanians are forever loyal to their Saints, as is evident by the team’s 40.2 rating, while the eternal rivalry between AFC North strongholds Cleveland and Pittsburgh is illustrated by the four-tenths of a point that separates the two markets.

Flip the script and it’s the major markets that run the show, which is only to be expected given that the local ratings effectively measure the percentage of the whole that’s tuning in. The more people there are in a given locale, the more likely the overall audience deliveries will swell; even if the enthusiasm in sprawling cities like New York and Los Angeles isn’t nearly as concentrated as it is in the smaller markets, the numbers tend to add up.

Now, no generous soul would blame Jets and Giants fans for wanting to find something more constructive to do with their weekends, but even with both teams eking out single-digit ratings, the local headcount is still nothing to sneeze at. Together, the two market-bifurcating clubs this season have reached 1.24 million local households per week, which represents 16.6% of their shared base. A similar dynamic holds sway in L.A., where the combined deliveries for the Rams and Chargers shakes out to some 1.07 million households.

If ambivalence toward the long-struggling Big Blue and Gang Green is hardly cloaked in mystery, L.A.’s take-it-or-leave-it stance with its NFL clubs is a bit of a head scratcher. Sure, there are other things to do out there—that third draft of your live-action Jabberjaw spec script isn’t going to write itself—but even when added together, the local ratings (18.7) for the Rams and Chargers are bottom-tier. And that’s particularly surprising, given how well both teams are doing thus far in 2021. Each is just a hair’s breadth behind the leader of their respective divisions, and at 5-4 the AFC squad is much improved over last season’s 2-7 record at this juncture.

Among the total-household metric (498,965 homes), the Chargers haven’t cracked the top 10—which is something even the woeful Jets have managed. Although to be perfectly fair, New York has an edge on the No. 2 DMA, with 7.45 million TV homes to L.A.’s 5.74 million. And the Chargers’ local deliveries have grown faster than any other franchise, expanding 24% versus 2020, with a net gain of 97,499 households.

For all the inherent flakiness of the Left Coast, a few teams in the top 10 DMAs are the top priority when Sunday rolls around. Nearly 30% of homes in the Big D have a standing date with the Cowboys each week, which amounts to a league-best 853,205 homes—or about the same number of TV households in the Las Vegas area. Dallas is the nation’s fifth-largest DMA; proportionately, the Cowboys’ in-market deliveries represent a sort of Platonic ideal. (The team also does quite nicely for itself on the national stage. According to the latest Nielsen figures, Dallas is currently the No. 2 draw in coast-to-coast TV windows, trailing only the defending champs in Tampa.)

The Cowboys are up 19% in the hometown market, gaining 136,275 households. The slumping Bears are headed in the other direction, and while the team’s average draw of 784,573 households is the second-largest behind Dallas, Chicago has seen 13% of its base evaporate, for an average loss of 118,033 homes per game. Over the course of a single year, the 3-6 Bears have lost the equivalent of the TV-owning population of Abilene, Texas.

Among teams representing the 10 largest DMAs, only the Patriots are watched by more than 30% of the locals. Saturation and a teeming local populace have made New England the NFL’s third-best in-market draw, with 774,272 households tuning in, an increase of 11% versus the year-ago 694,604.

When taken as a whole, the 30 NFL teams are reaching 14.2 million local homes per week, up 3% from the comparable period in 2020. The average rating works out to a 25.7. Per Nielsen, the NFL through Week 10 is averaging 15.1 million viewers across its regional Sunday afternoon windows, which marks an 8% lift compared to 14 million viewers a year ago. Including the three weekly primetime broadcasts, the NFL’s combined national and regional windows are averaging 16.2 million TV viewers, up 9% from 14.8 million.

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