Are you ready for some football? The broadcast TV channels sure are.
The NFL’s 2021 regular season officially kicked off Thursday night at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, when the defending Super Bowl LV champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, defeated “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys, 31-29 on NBC. As per usual, the telecast absolutely dominated in Nielsen’s TV ratings.
NFL games and regular broadcast-TV programming are horses headed in two different directions. And they’ve been galloping away from one another for years now.
In 2016, NFL regular-season games averaged 16.6 million viewers ages 2 and over — a figure that was 2.8 times the average for non-sports broadcasts in primetime (5.8 million), according to Nielsen’s Live + Same Day data set. The next year, averages for both declined, but the ratio remained the same. That gap began to widen in 2018.
(For the purposes of this story, we are including all NFL regular season games in that roll-up — so not just primetime and not just broadcast TV.)
NFL regular-season games in 2018 averaged 15.8 million total viewers, an improvement of 800,000 (per game) over the previous year. Meanwhile, non-sports shows in broadcast primetime declined by another 400,000 viewers — the same number they slipped from 2016 to ’17. The math there tells us that NFL games were suddenly 3.1 times more popular than your run-of-the-mill non-sports shows on broadcast television.
In 2019, those non-sports shows declined by another 400,000 viewers each on average. But the NFL caught fire, and hauled in 16.5 million viewers per game — or 3.6 times what its non-sports competition did.
Sounds big, right? It was. And then 2020 happened.
In the (mostly) COVID-19 pandemic year, when football played to empty stadiums and non-sports series were lucky to resume production, the discrepancy between NFL games and the non-pigskin stuff grew again, to 4.3 times the average audience. The football drew 15.4 million viewers per game, which was still quite good given the circumstances. Non-sports programming sank to 3.6 million total viewers, on average, per broadcast.
See those ebbs and flows (all ebbs in the case of the non-football) charted on a line graph below.
So even as NFL ratings have been declining, they’re comparatively gaining in terms of audience share. That’s why the league continues to demand top dollar both in broadcast rights and advertising money.
“Thursday Night Football,” for example, just went to Amazon Prime for the insane price tag of $110 billion (yes, billion) over the next decade.
And on a recent conference call, NBCUniversal’s executive vice president of sports ad sales, Dan Lovinger, said that certain Super Bowl LVI sponsors have paid $6.5 million for a 30-second spot. This, despite this past year’s Super Bowl ratings — and the game itself — not living up to expectations.