Hall of Lame? Despite steep year-to-year drop, NFL preseason still delivers for NBC

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Hayden Hurst of the Baltimore Ravens makes a reception against Jonathan Anderson of the Chicago Bears on Aug. 2 in Canton, Ohio.
Hayden Hurst of the Baltimore Ravens makes a reception against Jonathan Anderson of the Chicago Bears on Aug. 2 in Canton, Ohio. Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFL pre-season schedule kicked off Thursday night with the lowest-rated Hall of Fame Game in recent memory, but the size of the audience that tuned in for the Bears-Ravens scrimmage still managed to dwarf pretty much everything else that has aired on broadcast TV this summer.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC's coverage of the game averaged 6.77 million viewers and a 4.1 household rating, which marked an 18 percent decline versus last year's analogous exhibition. The 2017 Hall of Fame Game, which featured the NFL's top draw (Dallas) and the somewhat less popular Arizona Cardinals, averaged 8.25 million viewers and a 5.0 household rating.

No comparisons are available to 2016, as the scheduled Packers-Colts workout was scrapped in the wake of a bizarre groundskeeping incident that rendered certain patches of the turf "as hard as cement." That said, this year's game couldn't hold a candle to the 2015 blockbuster, a Vikings-Steelers skirmish that delivered a staggering 11 million viewers and a 6.6 rating.

If Baltimore's 17-16 victory over Chicago eked out the lowest broadcast ratings for a Hall of Fame Game in the better part of two decades, the size of the audience relative to the rest of the summer TV landscape suggests that the NFL is not in mortal danger. For example, Thursday night's exercise scared up a bigger crowd than did NBC's coverage of Game 5 of this year's Stanley Cup Final.

Washington's 4-3 triumph over the upstart Vegas Golden Knights on June 7 averaged 6.59 million viewers and a 3.9 rating. In other words, the game that decided the outcome of the 2017-18 NHL season—and rewarded fans with the spectacle of the Caps hoisting the Cup for the first time in their 44-year history—was watched by fewer people than an inessential NFL game played by guys who'll either ride the bench this season or fail to make the final 53-man roster come September.

At this point it's probably worth noting that neither the Ravens nor the Bears are exactly huge ratings draws, ranking 25th and 27th, respectively, in last season's national TV windows. Among the very few NFL teams that are bigger ratings flops are the woeful Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills, a franchise that represents a city of just 592,750 TV households.

Despite the lack of a Cowboys- or Steelers-size national fanbase, the only episodes of broadcast TV that have out-delivered Thursday's game this summer are all nine installments of NBC's massive competition series "America's Got Talent" and the June 10 season premiere of ABC's "Celebrity Family Feud." Per Nielsen, 7.57 million viewers tuned in to the revamped game show, which featured a showdown between the Kardashians and Team Kim/Kanye.

In terms of other sports broadcasts, the Hall of Fame Game also edged NBC's coverage of the British Open and put up higher ratings than 63 of Fox Sports' 64 FIFA World Cup games. Including pre-game coverage, the July 15 France-Croatia title tilt averaged 11.3 million viewers and a 6.2 household rating, while in-match deliveries worked out to some 12.5 million viewers and a 6.8 rating.

Other sporting events that eclipsed Thursday's exhibition were the NBA Finals on ABC; the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes on NBC; the Masters on CBS and the MLB All-Star Game on Fox.

Among the top-spending advertisers in Thursday's broadcast were Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Volkswagen, Geico, Verizon, Chevrolet, Hyundai and EA Sports. According to iSpot.tv data, NBC also used the game to promote the upcoming season of "Sunday Night Football" and its three fall freshman series. The hospital drama "New Amsterdam" premieres Monday, Sept. 24, while Robert Zemeckis's "Manifest" bows the following night and the comedy "I Feel Bad" suits up on Thursday, Oct. 4.

The 2018 NFL season officially kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 6, as the Atlanta Falcons take on the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Kickoff Game on NBC. Among the excuses and/or justifications NFL detractors and Nielsen hawks will have for any early ratings declines include a wildly unpopular new helmet rule that will almost certainly give rise to an increase in the number of penalties called per game. There's also the national debate over players exercising their rights to protest a racist society that all but advocates for the extrajudicial murder of anyone who happens to look like them—a debate that will only be exacerbated by this guy right here.

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