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Comeback or a temporary correction? NFL domestic TV audiences recover in 2018-19

Thanks to its partnership with Eurodata TV Worldwide, SportBusiness Consulting brings you a look at domestic television audiences for two of sport’s biggest global properties, the NFL and the NBA.

After consecutive years of falling television ratings, NFL domestic television audiences increased by five per cent in the recently concluded 2018-19 season. Several reasons have been given for the increase in audience including:

  • A higher quality of football featuring more offense and a number of exciting games. The season was second this century for total yards and points per game
  • Emerging new talent including Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns. The impact of these players has been underlined by Fanatics, the league’s licensed merchandiser, reporting a 25 per cent increase in sales over the season
  • The fact that audiences in previous seasons had reached such a high point that the only way the ratings could go was down, and 2017-18 was the end of the audience correction
  • That it was the first time in two years that the season wasn’t taking place against the backdrop of a presidential election cycle
  • A lack of controversy surrounding the game – recent seasons have been dogged by negative stories regarding player behaviour, the number and severity of concussions suffered by players and criticism by Donald Trump of the league and its players.

Furthermore, the importance of the decline of NFL audience ratings in the previous two seasons had arguably been overplayed, especially when viewed against the trend of falling audiences for all television programmes: in 2017, seven of the top ten, 34 of the top 50, and 61 of the top 100 most-viewed television programmes in the US were NFL matches.

Audience analysis by kick-off slot

Apart from Thursday Night Football coverage on NFL Network, there were increased audiences across all the NFL’s various kick-off timeslots.

The most watched kick-off slot in 2018-19 was the Fox NFC package of late afternoon Sunday games (generally with a 4.25pm EST kick-off time), which attracted an average audience of 22.24 million viewers (25.4 per cent share). This is at least in part because the NFC features teams in a number of the US’s largest television markets: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington DC and Los Angeles. Fox’s highest average audience was for defending champions Philadelphia Eagles week 14 game against fierce rivals and ‘America’s Team’ the Dallas Cowboys, which attracted an average audience of 25.35 million viewers (27.4 per cent share).

Fox also has an earlier Sunday viewing window, which in 2018-19 had an average audience of 15.11 million (20.8 per cent share), 3.6 per cent more than in 2017-18, when the same window had an average audience of 14.59 million (19.1 per cent share).

The largest increase in audience was for the CBS AFC package of late afternoon Sunday games (also generally with a 4.25pm EST kick-off time, broadcast on weeks without a major Fox game), where the audience rose from an average of 19.2 million viewers (21.5 per cent share) to 21.87 million viewers (25.3 per cent share), an increase of 13.9 per cent. The most-watched game was from week 15, between old rivals the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, which attracted an average audience of 24.72 million viewers (28.3 per cent share).

Like Fox, CBS also has an earlier viewing window.; it attracted an average audience of 13.94 million viewers (19.2 per cent share) in 2018-19, an 8.3-per-cent increase on the audience in the same window in 2017-18, when it was 12.87 million (16.9 per cent share).

While Fox and CBS have a similar package of rights, Fox pays $100m more per year for its rights as its access to those large television markets gives the NFC package greater value. When taking an average audience for the two Sunday viewing windows on both broadcasters, Fox paid an average of $62.78 per viewer, a decrease of 65 cents per viewer on 2017-18. CBS, on the other hand, paid an average of $60.31 per viewer, down from $64.06 in 2017-18.

While it is not the most-viewed NFL window, NBC’s Sunday Night Football was again the most-watched television programme in Primetime (i.e. between 8pm and 11pm) in 2018. The average audience for 17 games was 19.29 million viewers (19.6 per cent share) for what is designed to be the week’s most-attractive game. This is an increase of 5.5 per cent on the average audience from 2017-18 of 18.28 million (17.3 per cent share). The most-watched contest in 2018-19 was the clash between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, featuring Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. The game had an average audience of 23.97 million (23.9 per cent share). While Sunday Night Football is usually the best match of the week, it faces more competition for eyeballs from original programming on the other networks, which may have an impact on the audience size. NBC paid an average $49.25 per viewer in 2018-19, down from $51.97 in 2017-18.

As it exploits the rights to Monday Night Football on pay-television, ESPN pays the most for its package of rights – an average of $1.9bn per season. It saw an 8.7-per-cent increase in audience in 2018-19, with the average number of viewers increasing from 10.86 million (11.1 per cent share) in 2017-18 to 11.81 million (12.7 per cent share) in 2018-19. This meant its cost per viewer decreased from $174.95 in 2017-18 to $160.88 in 2018-19. As ESPN earns an average of $7 per month per subscriber from its various carriage agreements, it is far less reliant on generating revenue via advertising than CBS, Fox or NBC.

In the first year of its five-year agreement for Thursday Night Football, Fox achieved an average audience of 14.44 million viewers (15.6 per cent share), a five-per-cent decrease on the average audience in 2017-18, when the rights were shared between CBS and NBC. However, when two Thursday Night Football broadcasts on NBC are added, the average audience increases by 6.4 per cent, to 15.37 million.

Fox is paying $650m per season for the rights, meaning a $45.01 cost per viewer. Thursday nights feature a number of popular non-sports programmes including The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon on CBS, while the standard of football has been criticized as teams are coming off a short turnaround from playing on Sunday.

Audience increases weren’t contained to the regular season, with viewership of the NFL playoffs increasing 14.3 per cent. The average audience in 2018-19 was 31.68 million viewers (34.8 per cent share), up from 27.72 million viewers (29.3 per cent share) in 2017-18.

There is speculation that the NFL will go to market with its next cycle of domestic rights later this year. ESPN has the rights to Monday Night Football until the end of 2021, with the Sunday packages all expiring a year later. Recent rumours have included Disney making a play for a Sunday package and/or moving Monday Night Football to the ABC network, and the NFL going away from the current model of separate AFC and NFC Sunday afternoon packages. There is, of course, also speculation that some of the new digital players such as DAZN or one of the major tech players will be involved in the bidding process.