When it comes to the NFL on network television, everyone continues to wait for the other shoe to drop. Attention spans are declining, sports media is as saturated as ever and we continue to see a rise in alternative methods for the consumption of live sports.
Logically, in an age of cord-cutting and illegal streaming and thousand-channel cable and satellite options, you’d expect TV viewership numbers for the NFL to drop just as they have with other sports and entertainment genres. Throw in that the league has been mired in what feels like a constant stream of controversy related to everything from concussions to officiating to deflated footballs and a ratings decline would seem like a no-brainer.
As NBC Sports noted in a Tuesday press release, viewership for Sunday Night Football — the league’s staple primetime network broadcast — have in fact continued to climb thus far in 2015. In fact, NBC is on pace to record the best year for a broadcast primetime package this century.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football is averaging 23.3 million viewers – the best viewership for the NFL’s broadcast primetime package at this point in the season in 19 years (23.7 million in 1996). SNF is averaging a 13.4/23 household rating – the best start for the broadcast primetime package in 16 years (13.7/23 in 1999). SNF viewership and HH rating are up 9% and 8%, respectively, from last year at this time (21.3 million viewers and 12.4/21).
Sunday night’s game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos averaged 25.2 million viewers, marking the fifth time SNF has surpassed that 25 million mark this season. That’s something that happened only once in 2014. And Thursday night’s Thanksgiving game between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers was NBC’s second-most watched regular-season affair since it acquired the SNF package in 2006.
How is this possible?
The matchups have certainly helped. Per Sports Media Watch, ratings only rose over last year in five of the first 12 Monday Night Football games and five of the first 10 Thursday Night Football games of 2015, compared to rises in nine of the first 11 Sunday nighters. But the only arguably non-premium matchup NBC has aired thus far (Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers in Week 7) drew pedestrian numbers. The other ho-hum matchup from a ratings standpoint? A Week 11 affair that was flexed between the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals. Two good teams from weak markets resulted in “only” 18 million viewers.
Having that flex ability certainly helps NBC, which in Week 14 will get to air a quality matchup between the Patriots and Houston Texans instead of a less-than-stellar game involving the Seattle Seahawks and the depleted Baltimore Ravens.
But NBC has been flexing games for years and always seems to win out in the schedule department, so a strong batch of games doesn’t fully explain how the network has somehow boosted its primetime NFL numbers despite circumstances indicating such a development should be nearly impossible. FOX’s numbers also appear to be up slightly and earlier this season CBS reported its best NFL numbers in decades.
We keep allowing ourselves to get fooled into believing the NFL has peaked on TV, but the monster we’ve created simply continues to gain strength. For whatever reason — daily and/or standard fantasy, gambling, office pools, parity, a short and uniform season, strong marketing — America is positively addicted to NFL football.
The NFL, it seems, can fly as close as it wants to the sun.