The Media View

NFL Cruises While the Rest of TV Splinters

League Defies Problems the Medium Is Having, Helped Along by Smart Marketing, High-Def and Online, Says Horizon's Brad Agate

By Published on .

Brad Adgate
Brad Adgate
It's getting harder and harder to assemble big audiences around expensive network TV, where prime-time ratings in the fourth quarter just declined another 7% from a year earlier and the highest-rated program of all time remains the "M*A*S*H" finale -- in February 1983. Even cable TV saw ratings slide in the final quarter of last year.

But the National Football League doesn't have those problems.

And it's not just the Super Bowl, where a close game on Feb. 7 might finally surpass the last "M*A*S*H" and its 106 million viewers as the top TV program in history.

The NFL's marketing genius, embrace of digital platforms and even the spread of high-definition TV have combined to draw bigger and bigger audiences in the post-season, the regular season and even the off-season.

Dominant performance, many beneficiaries
While all kinds of proliferating competition kept creating problems for so many others, the NFL turned out a regular season with more viewers than any other season since 1990. No other TV property can come close to making that claim.

But at least the 2009 regular season was a ratings bonanza for all five networks that carry NFL games.

Brett Favre
Brett Favre Credit: AP
The highest rated prime-time program on NBC during the fourth quarter was, once again, "Sunday Night Football." Through the course of the regular season NBC's games averaged 19.4 million viewers, whether they watched live or time-shifted on the same day, an increase of 17% from the 2008 season. Fox coverage of the primarily larger market NFC teams averaged 19.1 million viewers for its Sunday afternoon package, an increase of 12% from the previous year. Similarly, the CBS package of AFC games averaged 17.1 million viewers on Sunday afternoon, an increase of 7% from 2008.

The NFL's impact was even greater on cable TV. ESPN's "Monday Night Football" franchise averaged 14.4 million viewers in 2009, gaining a very healthy 20% over the year before. One of ESPN's highlights came on Oct. 5, when Minnesota's Brett Favre made his greatly anticipated return to Green Bay and played against his old team. The game averaged 21.8 million viewers -- the most watched cablecast in history and the top TV show, whether cable or broadcast, of the week.

Top two shows in a week
Later in the season ESPN's "Monday Night Football" became TV's most-watched program of the week with a Nov. 30 match-up between the New England Patriots and the now-Super Bowl-bound New Orleans Saints that averaged 21.4 million viewers. The second-most watched show of that week, moreover, was the Sunday Football Game on NBC in which the Vikings and Cardinals averaged 20.9 million viewers.

Of the five networks carrying games, however, the league's own NFL Network reported the healthiest increase in viewers. The 4-year-old network averaged 5.5 million viewers for its eight late-season prime-time games, an increase of 48% from 2008. And it eclipsed its previous high of 10.1 million viewers, for a Green Bay-Dallas match-up in November 2007, when a blizzard on the East Coast and a marquee match-up between the Cowboys and the previously undefeated Saints averaged 10.5 million viewers on Dec. 19.

The NFL's phenomenal ratings roll continued into January and the post-season. Before the post-season began there was only one program, the college football championship game, that averaged more than 30 million viewers. By contrast, of the 10 post-season NFL games prior to the Super Bowl, seven averaged more than 30 million viewers.

The ratings of NBC, CBS and Fox were all up significantly when compared to last season's post-season. For the first round of the playoffs, aka Wild Card Weekend, audience delivery arrived up 16% for the two games on NBC and up 15% on both games on CBS and Fox. For the divisional playoff round the following week the audience levels for the two games on CBS and Fox grew by 11% and 18% respectively.

The NFL's ratings romp then hit high gear for the conference championship games of Jan. 24. The AFC Championship Game on CBS, in which the New York Jets faced the Indianapolis Colts, averaged 46.9 million viewers, an increase of 15% from last year's match-up and the highest mark for an AFC Championship Game since 1986, when New England played Miami. Later that day the NFC Championship Game on Fox, in which the Favre's Vikings faced the Saints, averaged 57.9 million viewers -- a whopping 51% over last year's contest. The game became the most-watched contest since a Dallas-San Francisco match-up in 1982.

Technology might actually be helping
The NFL can't take credit for the spread of high-definition TV, but it's certainly benefiting. According to Nielsen, sports are the "killer app" on HDTV, with sports ratings 21% higher on HD sets than non-HD sets last year. With the TV industry planning to roll out 3D TV, football games are poised to benefit too, as depth perception is added that lets viewers gauge the separation between offensive and defensive players.

The NFL is also probably helping its case on live TV by diving into the new platforms technology has delivered. The league is using, social networks, video gaming and micro-blogging to reach out to new consumers such as women and ethnic groups. NFL games are also available online. The Saints-Cowboys game on Dec. 19 attracted more than 1 million streams, a record.

On cable and satellite, last year the NFL made its Red Zone Channel widely available, allowing viewers get real-time highlights and to look-in at other games being played outside their home market. This year the NFL plans to make this channel available to subscribers' cellphones.

The NFL has become a year-round, global marketing machine. It has turned off-season activities such as the four-day NFL Scouting Combine into televised events; the college draft attracted 39 million viewers in 2009. And it has scheduling regular season games in London and Mexico City, with other games planned. Last season the Super Bowl was carried by 61 global broadcasters.

Big sports events often depend on the match-up to attract viewers. The most watched NBA Championship Game over the past five years, for example, occurred in 2008. The reason was the match-up featuring two of the NBA's most storied franchises and greatest rivals: the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Viewership for the 2009 World Series, marking the New York Yankees' first appearance in the Fall Classic since 2003, was 42% higher than the previous year and the most watched since 2004, when the Boston Red Sox "reversed the curse." And the College Football Championship Game has averaged more than 30 million viewers only twice, in 2006 and 2010, when the two combatants were undefeated.

This year's Super Bowl pits each conference's top-seeded team against the other for the first time since 1993, but the teams also represent two of the smaller markets in the NFL.

It shouldn't be a problem. Traditionally it has been the Super Bowl itself and its ads that attract viewers to the NFL championship. And the last two Super Bowls have been the most-watched in the game's 43-year history, attracting 97.5 million viewers in 2008 and 98.7 million viewers in 2009. Coupled with the NFL setting record audiences this season, this Super Bowl is likely to average 100 million viewers. And if the game is competitive, we might see one more record fall.

Brad Adgate is senior VP-research at Horizon Media.

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