Jan 14, 2022 - Sports

The NFL has an extraordinary grip on America’s media diet

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The NFL has had a banner season in terms of ratings and engagement, thanks in large part to the return of fans to stadiums, a slew of suspenseful games and of course, some off-field drama.

Why it matters: The 2021 viewership spike has quieted concerns regarding 2020's COVID-related decline, while also justifying the $100+ billion in media deals the league signed with its partners in March.

By the numbers: Viewership for the NFL's 2021 regular season was up 10% from 2020, its highest-rated season average since 2015, per Nielsen.

  • The NFL accounted for 41 of the 50 most-watched broadcasts of 2021, per Sportico (subscription), and 75 of the top 100.
  • Games averaged 17.1 million viewers (TV/digital), per the league, and 370 billion total minutes were consumed, up 18% from 2020 and the second-highest total since 2015.
  • Higher interest in games was a boon for pregame shows, per Sports Business Journal. NBC's "Football Night in America," for example, averaged 7.1 million viewers, an 18% increase from 2020.

Between the lines: A few close games and an extended season may have helped drive more viewership, and having fans back in stands enhanced the TV product.

  • A record 34 games were decided on the final play, and 64% of games were within eight points (one score) in the fourth quarter.
  • 2021 was the first 17-game season in NFL history, with the league adding an additional 18th week to the schedule.

Zoom out: Online, the NFL was the second most-read news topic in November and December. It trailed coronavirus, but was ahead of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, per page views data from Taboola.

  • Interest then took off in the first weekend of January — way beyond the previous months, according to Taboola data — as the Week 17 slate included seven teams clinching playoff spots, fantasy football championships and Antonio Brown's dramatic exit.
  • Google search interest in the league hit its season-long peak this past Sunday when the playoff field was hammered out, culminating in a dramatic Raiders-Chargers finish with millions rooting for a tie.

The big picture: It's great timing for the NFL, which is looking to renegotiate its Sunday Ticket rights package this year, while also exploring strategic partners for some of its media networks, like NFL Network and RedZone.

What to watch: Sports executives don't expect NBC to experience the same dramatic viewership declines for this year's Super Bowl as last year, when viewership fell to a 10-year TV low.

  • The Super Bowl is typically considered a TV ratings success if more than 100 million people watch it live.
  • Last year's game was watched by 96.4 million viewers, though the broadcast did break records as the most live-streamed NFL game ever.

The bottom line: Though the pandemic still lingers, the NFL clearly benefited from the semi-return to normal in 2021. Packed stadiums drove more overall interest, and fans fell back into their weekly routine of watching games on Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays).

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