If 2018 was the year the NFL stanched the bleeding caused by two straight seasons of ratings declines, 2019 marked the end of any further discussion about what professional football means to the livelihood of the broadcast TV networks. Having closed out the fall campaign with an average audience of 16.5 million viewers across its Sunday, Monday and Thursday TV windows, the NFL grew its year-over-year deliveries by 5 percent and improved upon its performance in 2018 by a solid 10 percent.
Given the ongoing contraction of TV ratings, any growth is noteworthy. As it happens, the NFL’s gains coincide with a 7 percent seasonal decline in the overall usage of TV and a 9 percent year-to-year drop in overall primetime deliveries.
The gulf between the reach of the NFL and even the most popular scripted series has grown only wider; while CBS’s “NCIS” remains the most-watched entertainment program with an average draw of 11.4 million live-same-day viewers—a figure that more than doubles the overall primetime average of 5.9 million viewers per night—that pales in comparison with the numbers football puts up each week. The league’s top TV property, the national Sunday afternoon window shared by Fox and CBS, averaged a staggering 24.3 million viewers in 2019, up 8 percent versus last season’s 22.6 million, while NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” grew 4 percent to just under 20 million viewers.
In a year marked by the end of two massive hits (CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), the NFL absolutely dominated the tube, accounting for 41 of the top 50 most-watched broadcasts, and 73 of the top 100. Including the World Series, NBA Finals, college football bowl games, the NCAA Men’s Div. I Basketball Championship, the Kentucky Derby and the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, sports laid claim to 88 of the most-watched programs of 2019.