The National Football League is bucking its own narrative. After a few years of ratings downturn, the league’s TV ratings are actually trending upward this season.
Through the first six weeks of the 2018 campaign, NFL games have collectively averaged 15.6 million viewers, which is pacing 4 percent ahead of last season (15.0 million), according to Nielsen.
The reversal of the league’s ratings fortunes comes amid declines pretty much everywhere else on television, as changing viewer habits have eroded the traditional TV model. Live events, particularly the NFL, were seen as bulletproof to the cord-cutting phenomenon.
More importantly, the TV ratings for primetime games, which suffered larger drops compared to Fox and CBS’ Sunday afternoon coverage, are all up compared last year.
On NBC, “Sunday Night Football” is averaging more than 20 million viewers (NBC includes streaming numbers in their figures), up 5 percent over the comparable numbers from 2017 (19.3 million).
ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is averaging 11.5 million viewers, pacing 3 percent ahead of last season at this point (11.2 million), as well as 7 percent above last year’s full season average (10.8 million). On NBC, “Sunday Night Football” is averaging more than 20 million viewers (NBC includes streaming numbers in their figures), up 5 percent (19.3) over the comparable numbers from 2017.
Fox’s debut season of “Thursday Night Football” is averaging 14.2 million viewers (which include NFL Network simulcast) through its first three games, which is 7 percent higher than the entire 2017 season average for “Thursday Night Football” games that rotated between CBS and NBC. This is the first year of Fox’s five-year deal, $3 billion deal with the NFL.
“Thursday Night Football” also had its best NFL Network-only game audience in three years, grabbing 8.6 million viewers who watched Baker Mayfield lead the Cleveland Browns to the team’s first victory since Christmas Eve 2016 during Week 3.
The quality of the games, particularly in primetime, has noticeably improved. Just this past week, both “Sunday Night Football” and “Monday Night Football” featured games decided by field goals as time expired.
The good ratings news comes as the NFL has faced a number of concerns regarding its long-term viability, including a frosty relationship with President Donald Trump, who has used player pre-game protests to boost support among conservatives. At the same time, concerns over the long-term effects of head injuries continue to plague the league.
But during a news conference on Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally had something to smile about: “We are one of the few, if any, content that is actually growing an audience.”