One month into its 2019 season, the league's viewership is up around 5% compared to this time last year, attracting an average of roughly 16 million viewers across the league's network partners, according to Nielsen data. The NFL's viewership is also up 8% from 2017 and down just 1% from 2016.
This season's numbers build on last year's ratings, which rebounded following two seasons of declining viewership. At that time, the media and sports observers wondered if the league's ratings could ever bounce back. The games were lousy. The president relentlessly attacked the league over players who kneeled during the National Anthem. And a glut of on-demand, prestige content from Netflix and other streaming services meant that TV viewers had an excess of other viewing options. It seemed like the end of times for the NFL.
What's driving viewership this season is hard to pin down, but Jay Rosenstein, an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch Institute for Global Sport and a former VP of programming at CBS Sports, told CNN Business that the league has thrived early this season thanks to good match ups and strong performances from the NFL's key franchises.
"Its storylines are compelling, most of its major teams are competitive and it has exciting young quarterbacks like Pat Mahomes to complement the national appeal of stars like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers," he said. "It's been a great mix."
Rosenstein added that the league's ratings bump this year is "substantial" especially considering that "the rest of TV is going in the opposite direction."
Broadcast TV has struggled so far this season with its premiere week ratings in the tank. The declines have impacted even hit shows like the NBC drama "This Is Us" and late night TV, but the NFL has so far been immune to these trends.
Stefanie Morales, director of audience intelligence at Magna, a company that monitors audience trends, says that the NFL's ratings show that viewers are still willing to tune in to watch live sports despite competition from streaming services.
"Entertainment ratings continue to decline as more and more streaming services and content providers fragment the available viewers," Morales said. "But sports are able to maintain a strong audience base due to the nature of live programming and team loyalty."
The league's 100th anniversary could have also played a part in the ratings boost, according to Rosenstein. The NFL has been commemorating its centennial with special events, programs and promotions. The league kicked off the year with the Green Bay Packers taking on the Chicago Bears — one of the league's oldest and most notable rivalries. The NFL 100 celebration helped to "set the tone" for the season, and gave the league even more exposure, he said.
The recent ratings bump is important for another reason: The NFL's lucrative TV rights deals with NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN are coming to an end in 2021 and 2022, so it's good news for the league that its ratings are on the upswing with negotiations on the horizon.
But will the positive ratings news continue? Rosenstein thinks so.
"Looking at future match ups on the season's schedule there are a lot of enticing games like Packers vs. Chiefs in week 8 and Patriots vs. Cowboys in week 12. Those kinds of games lift all boats," he said. "I think the way the season is shaping up and the competitive nature of the year so far will only build momentum with audiences as the season goes on."
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