At the midway point of the 2018-19 NFL season, the league's TV partners seem to have navigated the headwinds that once threatened to blow the tube's most lucrative programming off course.
Through the first eight weeks of the regular season, the ratings slump that in recent years had been the source of considerable agita for the network suits and league officials alike has leveled out. Since the opening kickoff on Sept. 6, the various NFL TV windows are averaging 15.3 million viewers, steady versus the year-ago period, and a 9.0 household rating, which marks a one percent improvement from the analogous interval in 2017.
At this juncture last fall, the NFL TV audience was down 6 percent from the first eight weeks of the previous season. The losses would accelerate in the back half of the schedule, with the full-season deliveries ending up down 9 percent versus the 2016-17 campaign.
That the NFL's TV numbers are flat-to-slightly-up counts as a significant victory for broadcasters, who continue to feel the pinch on the entertainment side of the ledger. Season-to-date, the Big Four networks have seen their deliveries of the primary demo slide 6 percent to around 1.87 million adults 18-49; eliminate sports from the mix and the average draw among the advertiser-coveted set is closer to 1.29 million.
To the delight of network ad sales execs, the high-impact TV windows are showing the most grit. TV's most-watched, highest-rated program is the national Sunday afternoon game that kicks off at 4:20 p.m. ET. Alternating between Fox and CBS, that pricey piece of real estate—a 30-second in-game spot can fetch upwards of $800,000—is currently averaging 21.1 million viewers and a 12.2 household rating. That works out to a negligible 2 percent dip vs. the year-ago 21.5 million viewers and marks no change in the window's average household rating.
Thanks to a deft programming strategy, that monster Sunday afternoon broadcast has a puncher's chance at further growing its audience in the second half of the season. Among the matchups Fox has to look forward to in its upcoming national windows are this weekend's Rams-Saints showdown, a Vikings-Patriots duel on Dec. 2 and two NFC East grudge matches featuring the Dallas Cowboys. (Through its six national TV appearances, Dallas remains the NFL's biggest draw, averaging 20.6 million viewers and an 11.8 household rating. By comparison, the most popular scripted broadcast series, CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," is averaging 12.6 million viewers and a 7.6 household rating.)
For its part, CBS has a Seahawks-Rams air war slated for Nov. 11 and three subsequent games featuring the high-octane offensive attack of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Buyers in the spring upfront were particularly eager to get their clients into the Dec. 16 Patriots-Steelers broadcast; the year-ago Brady-Roethlisberger shootout was the hottest game of the regular season, scaring up a staggering 26.9 million viewers and a 15.2 rating.
Hot on the heels of the outsized Sunday afternoon juggernaut is NBC's primetime showcase. Through its first nine broadcasts, "Sunday Night Football" is now averaging 18.8 million viewers and a 10.9, up 3 percent vs. last year's analogous time frame. Also showing growth are Sunday's regional single-header window on CBS/Fox (15.7 million viewers, 9.2 rating, up 2 percent) and the early half of the weekly double-header (12.8 million, up 4 percent).
On cable, ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is up 2 percent in total viewers (11.3 million), while its household ratings and deliveries in the key adults 25-54 demo are flat. With an average draw of 6.41 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, NFL Network's three telecasts are also up slightly compared to the year-ago period.
Fox's new-look "Thursday Night Football" package remains the lone outlier, as the five games that have aired thus far are averaging 12.7 million viewers and a 7.8 rating. That marks a shortfall of 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively, compared to CBS's five-game Thursday night slate in 2017. Fox still has time to turn the ship around, as upcoming broadcasts include a Panthers-Steelers tilt, a Packers-Seahawks meet-up, a Saints-Cowboys throw-down and a brawl between AFC West antagonists Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Because the ratings declines of the past two seasons had a somewhat dampening effect on this year's upfront sales, revenues for the first month of the season were down slightly vs. the September 2017 haul. According to Standard Media Index data, in-game NFL revenue slipped 5 percent in September, which works out to some $490 million based on the company's year-ago estimate of $513 million.
"The NFL's revenue decline is a reflection of the lower audiences last year," says SMI CEO James Fennessy. "The loss of viewers last year led marketers to devote smaller ad budgets to the NFL this year. As audiences return, we'll be watching whether the revenue follows suit."
Media buyers say the October spend figures should reflect a considerable re-allocation of client resources. "If football money was a little cautious [in the upfront], the ratings have put a lot of people at ease," said one national TV buyer who invests in a good deal of Sunday NFL inventory. "Plus there's not a lot of [political] noise out there that might scare off some clients who may be more sensitive to that kind of thing. If the NFL is within your budget, it's a great time to buy."
SMI will issue a more comprehensive NFL ad sales report later this season. In the meantime, sober upfront pricing and ratings guarantees have conspired to radically reduce the amount of ADUs (audience deficiency units) earmarked to make unfulfilled advertisers "whole." With few freebies to dole out, broadcasters have more inventory to sell in an active scatter market. In a time of contracting ratings, ADUs have a way of really adding up; according to SMI estimates, makegoods last season accounted for nearly one quarter (23 percent) of all in-game NFL ad units. Eliminating the cost associated with making up the sort of ratings deficiencies that plagued NFL broadcasters over the last two seasons is money in the bank.
Among the biggest NFL spenders are usual suspects including Verizon, Geico, Hyundai, Toyota, Progressive, Samsung, Apple (iPhone), McDonald's, Chevrolet and Ford. Per iSpot.tv estimates, the most profligate NFL backers include brands from the automotive, insurance, wireless and quick-service restaurant categories.
If it is, perhaps, something of a fool's errand to try and establish precisely why the NFL ratings are on the mend, it is also difficult to ignore the strides the league has made on the scoring front. The emergence of young quarterbacks such as Kansas City's rocket-armed Patrick Mahomes, who leads the league in yards (2,526) and touchdown tosses (26), and the rock-steady heroics of grizzled veterans including Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have helped put scoring on a record pace. The first eight weeks of play have yielded a record 659 touchdowns, of which an unprecedented 429 were secured via the air.
While old school Norm Van Brocklin types might bemoan the NFL's radical devaluation of all things defense, the uptick in scoring has made for a decidedly more entertaining product—and the fans have responded accordingly.
As much as teams now seem to score with the ease and frequency of a pre-shark-jump Arthur Fonzarelli, this statistical promiscuity hasn't made for a whole lot of one-sided contests. Through Week 8, no fewer than 68 games were decided by a one-score margin, while 36 were settled by a field goal or less. A year ago, 52 games were decided by a single score, of which 29 came down to a spread of 3 points or fewer.
Also probably helping matters is the fact that President Trump hasn't taken a potshot at the league or its players since the season began. Given his mercurial nature, that could change at a moment's notice, but as long as the president is preoccupied with migrant caravans and midterm elections, the NFL in the near-term will likely fly under the radar.