NFL Ratings Remain Sky-High Despite a 20% Drop in Overall TV Use

·6 min read

The gulf that stands between the NFL and everything else on linear TV is so vast that, were he still alive, the oft-shattered daredevil Evel Knievel would probably try to jump over the thing on his motorcycle.

Week 3 of the 2021 campaign coincided with the official launch of the new broadcast season, and while the NFL has long out-delivered the Big Four’s lineup of primetime shows, the thumping it doled out this time around was particularly savage. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Sunday’s two national broadcast windows averaged 21.1 million viewers and a 5.9 rating in the dollar demo, which works out to around 7.7 million adults 18-49. By comparison, the seven new series that bowed between Sept. 20 and Sept. 26 eked out just 3.73 million viewers, of whom some 666,000 were members of the under-50 set.

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In head-to-head competition Sunday night, the comps were even more one-sided. Whereas NBC’s Sunday Night Football averaged 19.7 million viewers (7.29 million of whom were in the adults 18-49 camp), the other three nets managed to draw just 3.15 million viewers in prime. The demo deliveries opposite the Packers-49ers showdown averaged out to one-half of a single ratings point, which translates to about 655,000 adults 18-49.

Powered by an early roster of tight games featuring some of the league’s biggest stars (Brady, Prescott, Mahomes, Rodgers), Sunday Night Football has given off a heat of capsaicinoid intensity. Through its first four NFL broadcasts of the season, NBC is averaging 20.5 million viewers—21.6 million if you toss in streaming deliveries—and an 11.2 household rating, which mark a 10% and 8% improvement compared to the year-ago 18.7 million/10.4. Go back to the fall of 2019, and Sunday Night Football’s numbers are up 2%, this despite the fact that overall TV usage in the last 24 months has dropped nearly 20%.

It is perhaps best to keep that massive TV exodus in mind when considering the entire NFL catalogue. Even though approximately 19.4 million fewer people are watching TV than was the case in September 2019, deliveries for the league’s regional and national windows (16.3 million viewers) are now up 3% compared to the analogous period two years ago and have improved 10% versus the first three weeks of the 2020 season.

Setting aside the hoary old saw about how success tends to foster numerous paternity claims, it’s no easier to make an air-tight case for why the NFL ratings are up than it is to speculate why they fell in 2018. Which is to say, while there are a number of factors working in the league’s favor, it’s impossible to assign a specific value to any of them. That said, it certainly doesn’t hurt matters that the nation’s No. 2 market, Los Angeles, is home to the 3-0 Rams and 2-1 Chargers, and the fact that the Dallas Cowboys are atop the NFC East is hardly a worst-case scenario for the league. Then there’s the fact that most of the featured games have been real scramble-for-the-Valium affairs, thanks in part to a quarterback boom that seems to have turned a bunch of hard-luck AFC teams (Browns, Bills, Chargers, Raiders) into viable contenders.

You could probably make the argument that the return to packed stadiums has made for a far more authentic/compelling product than that which was doled out last season—though you’d be hard-pressed to establish causality either way. And there’s the rise of legalized gambling, which when not promoting the use of the aforementioned brand-name benzodiazepines, is very likely having all sorts of positive influence on fan engagement. Good luck proving any of that; just as the critics who tried to establish a link between Colin Kaepernick and the ratings declines of a few years back had to fall back on sentiment surveys and the squawking imbecility of social media, anyone looking to chicken-and-egg the NFL’s recent turnaround is likely to end up with omelet on his face.

In fact, there are a few trends that would suggest that the NFL ratings are a weird anomaly, something that shouldn’t happen in a universe governed by the laws of physics and plain horse sense. We’ve already touched on the ongoing decline of TV usage—literally any audience growth in an era in which one-fifth of the overall audience has dematerialized like D.B. Cooper is cause for celebration (but also a little spooky, tbh)—but there are some more localized considerations in play as well. For instance, as much as it’s great that L.A. is the hottest thing on stilts, the shambolic state of the two clubs repping New York may be cause for concern. There are 6.82 million TV homes in the DMA, and a lot of those sets are getting switched off on Sunday.

Historically, viewers seem to get fidgety with the clicker whenever penalties start to impede the flow of the action. The zebras thus far have been a little trigger happy, reaching for their hankies 630 times over the course of the first 48 games, which marks an 11% increase from the year-ago period. More specifically, the plague that is offensive holding is in full, sickly bloom, as officials on 116 separate occasions have issued the requisite 10-yard penalty, which marks a massive 55% increase compared to last season’s 75 calls.

While momentum-destroying miscues can strain the patience of even the most ardent football fans, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which O-line goofups and overzealous laundry-tossers might undermine the turnout for next Sunday’s prime-time game. The spectacle of Tom Brady returning to Foxboro to square off against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots is expected to draw a massive TV audience, and if the game is at all close, the numbers conceivably could reach as high as the early Thanksgiving window.

The prospect of competing with Brady’s Boston visit is so daunting that CBS isn’t going to knock itself out in an attempt to counter-program the night. Rather than sacrifice its Sunday drama lineup on the altar of the most-anticipated NFL game in recent memory, CBS has delayed the season premieres of The Equalizer, NCIS: Los Angeles and SEAL Team until Oct. 10. While NBC is sucking all of the air out of the room, CBS will screen the 2009 theatrical Star Trek. At the same time, Fox and ABC will burn off new episodes of their respective Sunday rosters.

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