What Drove the NFL’s TV Ratings Increase in 2018?

An offensive explosion and a record amount of close games helped lift the league out of a two-year ratings rut

Last Updated: January 5, 2019 @ 12:39 PM

As the National Football League heads into the playoffs this weekend, it has a reason to be pleased.

Rules changes over the past few years that were designed to increase the amount of scoring have led the NFL to one of its best offensive seasons in league history. That offensive explosion, coupled with a record amount of close games, have helped lift the NFL out of a two-year ratings rut. After declining TV ratings, the league’s 2018 regular season was up in just about every conceivable Nielsen measure.

Overall, NFL games this season were up 5 percent compared to 2017, and averaged 15.8 million viewers across all networks (excluding the early-morning games from London).

Breaking it down individually, all of the league’s TV partners saw individual viewership increases. “Sunday Night Football” on NBC was up 6 percent with 19.3 million viewers, while Sunday afternoon slates on Fox and CBS were up 2 percent (18 million) and 6 percent (16.5 million), respectively. That follows viewership increases for Fox’s “Thursday Night Football” (which included the most-watched “TNF” game ever) and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

The NFL set, or came very close to, records in points scored, touchdowns and games decided by three points or fewer.

Overall, teams scored a record 1,371 touchdowns this season, which saw the league’s 32 teams finish with 11,952 combined points, which is the second-most behind only the 2013 season. The 2018 season also featured 73 games that were decided by three points or fewer, which was also a league record.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, in his first year starting, tied New England Patriots’ Tom Brady for the second-most ever touchdown passes in a season with 50. During Week 17, another offensive record fell — twice — when the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, and then later, the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, broke the record for most receiving yards by a tight end. In fact, that Chiefs team became the third-highest single-season scoring team in NFL history with 565 points.

ESPN also netted the highest-scoring contest in “Monday Night Football” history with the 54-51 shootout between the Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 19.

Coming into the season, the NFL had been fighting battles on multiple PR fronts, from concern over head injuries to players protesting during the national anthem. While the former remains a long-term issue, the later has appeared to fade into the distance. Even President Donald Trump, who frequently commented on the protests in 2017, hasn’t tweeted about the NFL since Sept. 9.

The league will hope to keep that momentum going when the playoffs kick off this weekend.

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