An extra week of games, close finishes and a non-election year helped propel the NFL to its highest regular-season ratings in six years.
The 272 regular-season games averaged 17.1 million viewers across television and digital platforms, that is a 10% increase over 2020 and is the league's highest average since 2015.
“There’s a strong argument to be made that the National Football League is the single most important entity in popular culture. And the numbers of viewers watching the NFL bears that out,” said Marc Ganis, co-founder of Chicago-based consulting group Sportscorp.
It was expected that the audience would increase after the 2020 season was played in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with empty stadiums presenting a strange viewing dynamic, and many people’s viewing habits changing. The first half of that season also occurred in the midst of a presidential campaign, when many were watching cable news channels.
“Ratings and viewership from year to year are never a straight line. There's always some ins and outs,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL executive vice president and chief operating officer, NFL Media. “Certainly 2020 was a unique year in a lot of different ways, but when you think about this season with full stadiums and the game itself, it was an awesome regular season.”
Three of the five television packages experienced double-digit growth. ESPN's “Monday Night Football” and the “Thursday Night Football” package on Fox, NFL Network and Amazon Prime were both up 16% from last season, followed by NBC's “Sunday Night Football” at 11%.
This was also the first season when the league played 17 regular-season games. Despite the extra games, there were not many blowouts. According to the league, 64% of all games this season were within one score in the fourth quarter.
NFL games ranked in the top 16 and 91 of the top 100 telecasts on television during the season, according to Nielsen. The Dallas Cowboys were involved in five of the 10 most-viewed games, including the Week 12 Thanksgiving Day match with the Las Vegas Raiders, which averaged 40.8 million viewers on CBS. That was the most-watched regular-season game on any network in 31 years and one of only two since 1988 to average at least 40 million.
CBS was up 9% over last season with the 18.09 million average being its highest since 2015. That includes a 21.59 million average during its 10 national game windows.
Fox's Sunday games increased 2%, averaging 18.57 million, but did have five of the 10 most-watched games. The Week 11 game between the Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs led the way with a 28.7 million average.
The final season of the Fox. NFL Network, Amazon Prime Video “Thursday Night Football” tri-cast averaged 16.4 million. Coincidentally, the biggest game in that package wasn't on Thursday night but Christmas Day, as the Cleveland Browns-Green Bay Packers contest averaged 28.6 million.
“Sunday Night Football” is on pace to become prime time's most-watched show for the 11th consecutive season at 19.3 million. Tampa Bay had NBC's top two games, including Tom Brady's return to New England during Week 4 (27.2 million).
ESPN's “Monday Night Football” averaged 14.18 million. It is the network's best regular-season viewership since 2010 and third best since 2006, when the package moved mainly to cable from ABC. The nine “Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli” alternate broadcasts averaged 1.6 million, with the highest being 1.96 million for the New York Giants-Kansas City game on Week 8.
The “ManningsCast” will return for Monday's wild-card game between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams.
The biggest encouraging factor for all parties is that streaming numbers continue to steadily increase. With Peacock, Paramount+ and ESPN+ expanding offerings, there were 370 billion total minutes streamed during the regular season, an 18% jump from 2020 and the second-highest total on record behind only 2015.
Those numbers will only go up in future years as “Thursday Night Football” heads fulltime to Prime Video next season, as well as exclusive streaming games on ESPN + and Peacock when the new television contract begins in 2023. The league's “Sunday Ticket” package with DirecTV expires after next season, with many expecting multiple carriers to make a bid.
“Streaming, you can get actual numbers and they are more precise,” Ganis said. "What we have seen with the NFL and streaming is what we saw with the NFL and cable and satellite TV, which is watching the games is appointment television. People will find games on whatever platform they’re on. That makes it enormously valuable to the streamers. Because one of the things streamers need is a reason for people to go to them in the first place.
“The NFL is built-in appointment television. It already is where people want to go. And so I would expect the streaming numbers will continue to grow by very large percentages each year.”
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