Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs past the Packers in November in a game that wouldn’t have been on the schedule without the new 17-game season, and Fox took advantage.Images: getty
Owith the NFL playoffs Ongoing, the NFL’s top executives and its television rights holders are celebrating the rebound in regular season viewership, calling it a reminder of the league’s resilience and unique strength compared to other media properties.
“It’s been the most successful season I can remember in a long time,” said CBS Sports president Sean McManus, whose Sunday afternoon game package saw a 9% year-over-year increase. the other. This closely follows the overall NFL game average, which was up 10% from the pandemic-ravaged 2020 season.
The rebound was widely expected, as viewership declined in the years leading up to the presidential election only to recover, and the impact of the pandemic was assumed to be temporary. But the results nonetheless came at the right time for the rights holders, who agreed last March to pay a total of $113 billion to keep their NFL games into the 2030s.
“The headline is: viewership is growing, the profile of the league is getting higher every year, and the importance to the media landscape is also growing year by year,” McManus said.
This season’s numbers for the league have also increased by 3.6% compared to the last pre-pandemic season in 2019. However, enthusiasm in this regard should be tempered, according to experts, due to the decision of Nielsen in 2020 to start counting outside viewers. . If the methodology hadn’t changed, experts agree that the 2021 numbers would be lower, probably close to stable compared to 2019.
“Do I believe viewership is up from last year? Yes, am I sure it’s exactly that 10% figure? It’s hard to say” , said William Mao, vice chairman of Octagon’s media rights consultancy, citing changes outside the home and ongoing challenges in measuring streaming viewers.
An instant classic between the Raiders and Chargers on Jan. 9 helped NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” finish as the No. 1 show on primetime television for the 11th straight year.Images: getty
McManus, whose network grew 4.7% from 2019, said he was confident the numbers reflect a real gain. NFL Executive Vice President Hans Schroeder said other engagement metrics point to real growth, especially against the backdrop of a precipitous decline in overall TV usage.
Mike Mulvihill, head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports, said, “Is outdoor advertising driving growth from 2019 to 2021? That may be the case, but I think it’s important to be aware that it’s the difference between a less accurate number then and a more accurate number now.
Execs and analysts are coming up with many theories about how viewership has increased this season. There have been plenty of close games, plenty of star players highlighting marquee matchups and a longer season. Others point to an unusual parity season, when top teams found themselves battling the lows at times, allowing most teams to stay in playoff contention until the dying moments.
Viewership patterns are cyclical, NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua acknowledged, but the strength of the NFL’s recovery in 2021 is still remarkable in light of the continued fragmentation of all other entertainment. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” recovered 11%. It was still down 3.7% from 2019, but retained its spot as the number one primetime show on all television for the 11th year in a row.
“‘Sunday Night Football’ is one of those things that always delivers that incredibly strong audience every night, and we always feel lucky to have that relationship,” Bevacqua said.
Schroeder, the chief operating officer of NFL Media, credited the on-field product for the ratings gains, but also credited the business innovations.
The 17-game season created new matchups that wouldn’t have happened with the previous scheduling formula, but produced big numbers. Such was the case with the Chiefs’ 13-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers in Kansas City on Nov. 7, which aired on Fox and ended as the ninth most-watched game of the season. Additionally, ViacomCBS’ decision in the 2020 playoffs to produce a Nickelodeon show for kids got others thinking about alternative shows, and this year ESPN2 saw extraordinary numbers for the “ManningCast” on ESPN2.
“[Nickelodeon] was a timely and impactful learning in last spring’s deals, and it created a market for all of our partners to think about ways to broaden the viewing experience and grow incremental audiences,” Schroeder said. “I really give it to ESPN with the ManningCast.”
The “Monday Night Football” package grew nearly 15.6% from 2020 and 12.1% from 2019, with ManningCast’s viewership setting records for alternative shows.
ESPN Senior Vice President Julie Sobieski credited the extended season, which included an 18-week Saturday doubleheader in the “MNF” package. All but five of the “MNF” games were simulcast on ABC or ESPN2.
“We had a great schedule from the start,” Sobieski said. “We started strong and had a fantastic end with the new Week 18 and the expansion of the season. It was really competitive, so many of our games. I honestly think we seem to have them reacting to having so many options with the games on ESPN and ABC and the new ManningCast.
The weakest growth in 2021 came at Fox, which saw a 2% gain for its Sunday package after a slow start. “Thursday Night Football,” shared by Fox, Amazon and NFL Network, rose 16%. Next year, Amazon gets Thursdays exclusively.
“I’m really happy to see some growth in Sunday’s package,” Mulvihill said. “On Thursdays, I’m glad we can get it back to hopefully better condition than we found it.”
Legalized sports betting does not seem to generate winnings, experts agree. Conventional wisdom holds that the game increases viewership by encouraging fans to watch longer. But in 2021, the NFL’s gains came from more people watching more games, not because they stayed tuned longer. (Total viewers fell from 163 million to 168 million, with the average fan watching 20.3 games instead of 18.8. But on average, time spent watching fell by about a minute, from 86, 5 to 85.6.)
“I’m as big as anyone on the long-term impact of betting on viewership, and obviously our society strongly believes in that – and I think the fact that New York has become legal in the last few days has the potential to be a pivot in that evolution – but I still don’t believe we’ve seen that this year,” Mulvihill said.
Games exclusively on NFL Network gained 24.4% over last year. This could be relevant to the NFL’s ongoing efforts to sell a minority stake in its owned-and-operated media. “RedZone has grown its viewership by 18%,” Schroeder said, “which is something we’re really excited about.”
Associate Editor Thomas Leary contributed to this report.