Chicago Bears' dramatic loss helps boost playoff ratings by 12 percent

NFL's run of good luck continues in the Wild Card round

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The NFL's season-long ratings momentum carried through to last weekend's Wild Card round, as the average deliveries for the first four playoff games were up 12 percent compared to the year-ago numbers.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Wild Card broadcasts averaged 28.4 million viewers, up from 25.4 million versus the analogous 2018 games. And in serving up a 16.1 household rating, the networks enjoyed a 10 percent lift from last year's 14.6.

Scaring up the weekend's biggest crowd was NBC's broadcast of the Eagles-Bears nail-biter on Sunday evening. Philadelphia's 16-15 road win in Chicago drew 35.9 million viewers and a 19.7 household rating, making it NBC's most-watched Wild Card game in at least 32 years, or as far back as the beginning of the Nielsen People Meter era. Some 45.1 million viewers were watching as Bears kicker Cody Parkey's double-doink field goal miss—he somehow managed to hit the upright and the crossbar—secured the win for Philly and absolutely wrecked the hapless mascot Staley da Bear.

The Eagles-Bears heart-stopper now stands as the NFL's eighth most-watched Wild Card game on the books. By way of context, the 35.9 million viewers who tuned in for Sunday's game matched ABC's turnout for Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. The most-watched NBA broadcast of the modern Nielsen era, Game 6 saw Michael Jordan claim his sixth and final title with the Chicago Bulls. (While the two broadcasts ran a dead heat in terms of overall deliveries, His Airness helped serve up a higher household rating 21 years ago with a 22.3. That said, NBC's 553,000 streaming viewers put the Eagles-Bears game on top with a total draw of 36.4 million viewers.)

NBC's Wild Card presentation was up 15 percent among total viewers and 13 percent in the ratings versus the Panthers-Saints broadcast that aired on Fox a year ago, although it didn't match the 39.3 million viewers and 21.3 rating Fox served up with the Giants-Packers playoff in 2017.

The weekend's next biggest draw, Saturday's Seahawks-Cowboys tussle on Fox, averaged 29.4 million viewers and a 15.9 rating, up 29 percent and 24 percent, respectively, compared to NBC's comparable Falcons-Rams contest in 2018. Dallas' 24-22 victory cinched the highest ratings for a Saturday Wild Card game since 2016.

As for the early games, the ESPN/ABC simulcast of the Colts win over the Texans drew 22.8 million viewers and a 13.5 rating, up 3 percent from last year's Titans-Chiefs game, while CBS's Chargers-Ravens coverage on Sunday afternoon was effectively flat (25.4 million, 15.4).

The improvement in the Wild Card ratings arrived on the heels of a regular season in which NFL deliveries were up 5 percent versus 2017, although it is perhaps worth noting that the weekend gains were largely facilitated by weak year-over-year comps. Last season's Wild Card games were notable for posting multiyear lows; per Nielsen: The average audience for the four broadcasts was down 5 million viewers, or minus 16 percent compared to the opening weekend of the 2016 playoffs.

According to iSpot.tv data, the most active ad categories in the Wild Card round were the usual suspects: auto, insurance, wireless, quick-service restaurants and movies. Top brand spenders included Verizon—if you watched all four games, odds are you were subjected to Thomas Middleditch's voice more often than you heard a quarterback bark "Blue 80! Blue 80!" at the line of scrimmage—Geico, AT&T Wireless, Progressive, Chevrolet, State Farm, Ford, Apple's iPhone, Subway and Hyundai. All told, the networks raked in some $205.2 million in playoff ad sales revenue, according to iSpot estimates, while the sponsors generated more than 10.2 billion impressions.

As the road to Super Bowl LIII rolls on with this weekend's four Divisional Round showdowns, two of the three top-rated NFL franchises (Dallas, New England) remain in the hunt, while three additional top 10 teams (Saints, Rams, Chiefs) are also in contention. League execs are particulalry chuffed to see both Los Angeles squads suiting up, as the Rams host the Cowboys in the late Saturday window on Fox, and Philip Rivers and the Chargers take on Tom Brady and the Pats this Sunday on CBS.

While there are still seven games left to play on the NFL docket, college football's season on Monday night came to a shockingly anticlimactic end. In their third meeting with Alabama in the National Championship Game, 5.5-point underdogs Clemson stomped the life out of the Crimson Tide by a 44-16 margin. Pulling ahead early in the second quarter, the Tigers would go on to score 30 unanswered points in a rout that had fans at Levi's Stadium (and viewers across the nation) heading for the exits long before the final gun.

Despite denying viewers much in the way of drama, the final ratings for the lopsided Clemson-Bama match-up weren't entirely anemic. ESPN's MegaCast, which includes the standard telecast on the flagship network as well as a pair of custom experiences delivered by spinoff channels ESPN2 and ESPNU, averaged 25.2 million viewers, down 11 percent versus last year's Bama-Georgia thrill ride, but more or less flat compared to the 2017 Tigers-Tide battle. And while that initial figure would make Monday's game the least-watched since Bama blanked LSU in the 2012 BCS Championship (24.2 million), it's worth noting that the Nielsen data does not include as much as 40 percent of the streaming audience nor the substantial out-of-home viewership.

If last year's ratings scorecard is anything to go by, the Clemson-Bama telecast should qualify as one of the 20 most-watched programs of 2019.

ESPN's complete College Football Playoff deliveries will be available later this month. The preliminary numbers peg the network's demo performance a bit north of a 7.8 rating, which translates to around 10.1 million adults 18-49. The MegaCast also averaged nearly 11 million adults 25-54.

As one might well expect, ESPN's commercial pods on Monday night were teeming with its official CFP sponsors. Among the most visible backers were Allstate, AT&T Wireless, Dr. Pepper, Capital One, Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell and Northwestern Mutual.

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