Lawrence: NFL Ratings On The Rebound

The NFL is doing just fine. In fact, it's still the most powerful and attractive product on TV, Amy Lawrence says

Amy Lawrence
November 27, 2018 - 6:16 pm

USA Today Images


Surprise, surprise...the NFL is trending UP in 2018.

After two years of sagging television ratings, fans are flocking back to football on the tube. According to FOX Sports executive vice president Michael Mulvihill, viewership is up five percent across the board through the first 12 weeks of the season. Breaking it down by time slot, Sunday Night Football on NBC is the biggest winner with numbers skyrocketing 11 percent to date! Earlier Sunday broadcasts on CBS and FOX are also ahead, as is Monday Night Football on ESPN. Only Thursday nights on FOX are a tick lower than 2017.

Thanksgiving turned into a ratings bonanza between Thursday's triple-header and Sunday's normal slate. Cowboys and Redskins on FOX roped in an average of 30.5 million viewers, which is 16 percent higher than the Dallas game last fall. In fact, the Cowboys' win was the most-watched regular season game in two years and the most popular TV show of 2018 outside of the NFL playoffs.

Football is definitely bucking the current TV trend. In a New York Times column published on Sunday after Thanksgiving, media insider John Koblin points to the continued decline of viewership across all genres. "Among adults under the age of 50, the number of viewers for network shows has tumbled an additional 10 percent this season." As more and more Americans dump their cable packages and switch to streaming services like Hulu, Playstation Vue, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, the ratings will keep falling. So what makes the NFL different? Why are fans returning in droves this season??

Just as there were a variety of reasons for the decline in NFL appeal, there's no singular way to explain the rebound. But let's start here: there is absolutely no substitute for the drama, entertainment, and instant gratification of live sports. The NFL is often referred to as the best reality show on TV, and who can argue? Pro football rarely fails to shock us, and each week offers high-octane excitement. And with the way it takes over social media, it's nearly impossible to avoid final scores and outcomes on our smartphones, which means we need to stay in the moment or get left behind. Unique to this fall, major media markets like Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, and Houston are home to division leaders and playoff contenders. While hardcore fans generally watch their teams no matter what, the success of the Rams, Chargers, Redskins, Cowboys, and Texans is likely corralling marginal and fair-weather fans in 2018. Imagine if New York could actually field a winner??

On the field, the shift in rules designed to facilitate wide-open offense and more scoring is working. With only five weeks left in the regular season, the NFL is on pace to shatter the records for most points, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns in a season. Average combined points per game is up to 48.4, higher than it's ever been. Plain and simple, the high-flying, explosive offenses are exhilarating! The Saints, Chiefs, and Rams are the top-scoring culprits, all managing at least 35 points each time out; and their combined record stands at 29-4. We fans are attracted to winners like moths to the light. It also helps when high-profile teams face each other such as the Rams and Chiefs, the Rams and Saints, the Chiefs and Patriots, the Patriots and Packers, and in Week 13, the Saints and Cowboys!

Invigorating young talent like Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff are driving ratings upward, too. The more we see of this quarterback duo, the more we want to see. Throw in dynamic rookie Baker Mayfield at the helm of the much-maligned Browns, the dual threats of Deshaun Watson in Houston and Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, the promise of Sam Darnold with the Jets, and the resurgence of Andrew Luck, and you can see why more fans are making football a priority. Overall, the quarterback position is enticing in 2018, from the fresh faces to the household names in Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger. The QB is always the most appealing figure in sports to lure viewers to their TV sets.

There's no overlooking the CALM surrounding the NFL this season either. Off the field, there is no major controversy. This time last year, the league had just won a fierce legal battle over its right to suspend Ezekiel Elliott for six games. In 2016, it was the Deflategate suspension served by Tom Brady. But all is quiet on the disciplinary front right now. The loudest uproar of the year came in the first month with the excess of roughing the passer flags, drawing the ire of coaches, players, and fans alike. League officials claimed they wouldn't back down and would continue to emphasize protection for QBs, but there's no denying fewer of those penalties have been called since September. Oddly enough, Week 3 may have been the last time we heard from Commissioner Roger Goodell. Seriously, where is he?? As one of the top "villains" in all of sports, less of Roger equates to healthy business, which translates to happy owners.

One final piece of the ratings puzzle is certainly the absence of debate over national anthem protests. With TV networks choosing not to show the anthem before kick-off, we're seeing less of the handful of players who still kneel or remain in the tunnels as protest. Because it's not front and center anymore, news and entertainment outlets aren't showing the images or stirring the pot every week. When was the last time you saw a story about the protests outside the sports world? Countless fans tuned out because they were weary of the conversation. Even if they harbored strong opinions about the protests and the reasons for them, the majority still watched football until the never-ending discussion grated on them. When the NFL chose not to amend or draw attention to its national anthem policy in the preseason, the storm died down. No doubt, many hardcore and marginal fans appreciate a football zone generally free of politics in 2018.

It's comical to think back over the last two years as staunch critics used dwindling ratings as evidence of the NFL's demise. As we process the numbers this fall, the way football is gaining viewers when every other genre is losing them, it's easy to see the sport is still the most powerful and attractive product on TV. Never fear, the NFL is alive and well.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.