NFL combine doubles Day 1 viewership, so expect it to stay in prime time — even if it doesn't stay in Indianapolis

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL jumped through scheduling hoops, agitated teams, ran draft prospects ragged and generally did whatever it could to shoehorn the scouting combine into a better ratings slot this week. And much to the chagrin of those who groused about the changes, the league got precisely what it was looking for.

A healthy ratings bump.

While it wasn’t a landslide of new viewers, the NFL more than doubled its Day 1 audience, boasting a 119 percent overall increase from 2019. The move sparked a 322,000-viewer average of the entirety of the prime-time slot, and peaked at 507,000 viewers from 9 to 9:15 p.m. ET on Thursday night.

Grumbling over format change

While an average of 322,000 viewers isn’t a smash hit on a Thursday night in February, it represents precisely what the NFL wanted to see with this move: audience growth. As the league moves toward a new collective bargaining agreement and pursues a $25 billion annual revenue goal in the next decade, one of the chief attack points in that effort will be not only expanding the television impact, but finding ways to create bigger content tentpoles in the offseason. Moving the combine into a prime-time slot was a beta-test of sorts — and the results showed the kind of growth that will likely keep the combine scheduled in prime time.

The NFL combine's TV viewership jumped up this year thanks to the new prime time slot. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
The NFL combine's TV viewership jumped up this year thanks to the new prime time slot. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That probably won’t be greeted with open arms by the coaching and personnel staffs of NFL teams, many of whom have complained about this week’s new schedule and the awkward pockets of downtime created during the course of the day. But it’s worth noting that coaches and personnel men are also historically creatures of habit, which means changing a decades-old combine setup has always been met with resistance or complaints.

The underlying theme in all this: NFL team owners are actively seeking ways to expand the product inside and outside of the season, and that’s going to mean taking a wrench and hammer to the league’s business (and everyone who works within it).

Consider: The CBA is aimed at expanding the regular season and postseason; the NFL draft has been turned into a road show that has been retooled for prime-time television; the league is continuing to expand both games and television contracts in the United Kingdom and Europe; now the combine is being adjusted to become a more sellable television event.

Will combine move similar to NFL draft?

Eventually, the combine is expected to become a road show too, plucked out of Indianapolis and placed into some of the sprawling billion-dollar football/retail complexes being built across the league by team owners like the Los Angeles Rams’ Stan Kroenke and Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones.

At a time when pro football has arguably peaked in the United States, the NFL is again searching for the things that have driven the league to new heights for over two decades: more television, more ratings, more showcasing of the product … and in turn, more money.

Thursday night’s ratings were just another example of that. And their growth falls right in line with what the league is seeking.

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