‘Back to where it was:’ NFL ratings see big jump in first month of season

NBC used Adele’s “Hello” as a promo to hype the much-anticipated matchup between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. And after seeing the ratings of “Sunday Night Football,” network executives may be “Rolling in the Deep”… piles of cash. 

Sunday’s dramatic game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots that featured a Brady-Belichick showdown produced a whopping 26.75  million viewers on television and 1.83 million on digital streaming platforms — marking NBC’s second most-watched “Sunday Night Football” ever, behind only 2012’s Cowboys-Redskins contest that decided the NFC East. 

The viewership was another gigantic number for the NFL — which has bounced back after a 7% rating drop in 2020. As of last week, the league’s ratings were up 9% — drawing an average of 16.9 million viewers. 

Even as ratings declined last season, the league still dominated the television landscape, accounting for 28 of the top 100 most-watched shows. But a month into the 2021 season, the NFL has produced gains once again.

If the trend holds, the league will see its ratings increase in three of the last four seasons.

“The NFL is back to where it was,” said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive who is now a media consultant. “In any operational environment, it’s going to produce good numbers. … Producing viewing increases or staying flat is a major accomplishment in the modern era, given that every second a new option appears to suck people’s attention away from anything, even things they really like.” 

Television ratings, of course, do not instantly translate into a monetary value. But they do reinforce why networks were eager to strike a 13-year, $113 billion media rights deal to re-up with the NFL last spring. Live sports, especially the NFL, are still a hot commodity even as general television viewing has dropped 20% over the last two years.

The reasons for the jump aren’t exactly known, but there are theories. For one, sports viewership has tended to increase as the atmosphere of games looks more normal. Sports ratings appeared to be hurt by the height of the pandemic, with no crowds at many games and an unorthodox sports calendar.

Drama helps, too. This NFL season has already seen a lot of close games. According to ESPN, there have been 15 contests in which the game-winning score happened in the final minute of regulation or in overtime — the most through the first four weeks of a season in the past 50 years.

Crakes said close games have been a factor, but shouldn’t be seen as the primary narrative. People, he said, were likely to tune into Brady against Belichick — regardless of the fact the 19-17 Buccaneers victory came down to a missed field-goal attempt in the final minute. 

Instead, Crakes floated that star power has boosted the ratings. The Dallas Cowboys — which has held the “America’s Team” nickname for more than 40 years — appear to be a contender once again, helping draw ratings. The season opener between the Buccaneers and the Cowboys drew 24.8 million viewers, while the Cowboys’ Week 2 showdown with the Chargers drew 24.3 million. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, three of the league’s four network partners saw a ratings bump through the first three weeks of the season. CBS’ Sunday games increased 17%, while NBC (12%) and ESPN (17%) improved, as well. The only network that saw a dropoff was Fox, though the 13% dip was possibly due to the Green Bay Packers’ blowout loss that aired in Week 1. 

“This platform, with this content, does big numbers,” Crakes said. “And it can do extraordinary numbers if you have the right story and the right quality of game attached to it.”

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