We’re seven weeks into the NFL season, and it’s clear that, barring an utter catastrophe, the season will finish out looking roughly like a normal schedule. The sports schedule, after the unprecedented chaos of the last few months, is stabilizing. The election season is drawing to a close.
All of which means it’s no surprise the NFL’s ratings are starting to trend upward once again.
You know the drill by now: ratings in the first few weeks of the NFL season were down, some by minor degrees, some by astounding ones. The potential root causes were many: an overstuffed sports calendar, a nation fatigued by pandemic and economic concerns, a presidential campaign that sucks up all the oxygen in every room, increasingly demonstrative social justice movements in the NFL itself. Pick a reason and you could reasonably consider why it might be contributing to the league’s ratings woes.
But as certain numbers continue to trend upward, it’s becoming clear that simplistic, cause-and-effect rationales just aren’t sufficient to explain the NFL’s ratings. It’s also clear that what kept viewers away from the NFL earlier in the year isn’t keeping as many away now.
Let’s dig deeper.
Thursday Night Football (Fox-NFL Network). Be honest: were you excited to watch two dog-ugly NFC East teams in Philadelphia and the Giants? Neither was anyone else. This game drew 10.07 million viewers, a 26-percent decline from last year’s game. That contest featured Kansas City against Denver, a rivalry with a touch more star power than Eagles-Giants.
Fox singleheader. Fox had the benefit of two big-name teams playing, albeit not against one another. Tampa Bay-Las Vegas and Green Bay-Houston, among several others, combined to draw 15.88 million viewers, a 20-percent increase over last year’s Week 7 game in the same time slot.
CBS early game. Here’s why we’ve been beating the drum of matchups: the combination of two undefeated teams locking horns drew the week’s largest jump over 2019. More than 14.5 million (mostly) watched Tennessee-Pittsburgh, a 22-percent increase over 2019.
CBS late game. A couple of matchups that looked strong on paper — San Francisco-New England and Kansas City-Denver — didn’t much hold up in reality. The result was still a monstrous number of viewers — 22.9 million — albeit a 1-percent decline over the same period last year.
Sunday Night Football (NBC). Seattle-Arizona drew 14.31 million viewers, a 33-percent decline from a Dallas-Philadelphia game in 2019. That has to be a continual concern for NBC, though the night was a highly competitive one, with a World Series game and a compelling 60 Minutes interview of President Trump, which drew 15.6 million in a time slot that did not directly conflict with any NFL games.
As the season rolls on and presidential politics (presumably) recede from the national stage, it’ll be interesting to see whether the league’s ratings continue to rebound ... and how Sunday Night Football will make up its lost ground.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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