Unless you somehow managed to spend the better part of last week trapped in the bottom of a well, you’re likely aware that Aaron Rodgers didn’t play football on Sunday. Oddly enough, the absence of the NFL’s presiding MVP, and the scuttling of the First Quadrennial State Farm Bowl, didn’t deter fans from flocking to the Green Bay-Kansas City game.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Chiefs’ 13-7 home win over the Packers averaged 24.4 million viewers and a 12.6 rating on Fox, making it the third most-watched broadcast of the season. With eight weeks to go before 2021 gives up the ghost, the broadcast currently ranks as the year’s 15th biggest TV draw, tucking in between a January Wild Card game and CBS’s presentation of the Cowboys-Chargers game in Week 2.
As it so happens, Sportico back in May predicted that the long-awaited first meeting between insurance pitchmen Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes would deliver 23.7 million viewers and a 12.8 rating. We also pegged the Oct. 3 Brady Homecoming game on NBC at 25.6 million viewers and a 13.2 rating, which was just a little shy of the actual outcome (26.7 million/14.5). Spooky, right? Although admittedly we didn’t exactly see this whole Rodgers deal coming down Broadway. At the time, the primary concern was that he wouldn’t turn up for any 2021 outing.
A reliable TV attraction since the Brett Favre era, Green Bay now ranks No. 5 among NFL franchises in terms of its overall national ratings performance. (See chart below.) Even if he may have cheesed off a whole lot of football fanatics, Rodgers’ return to the lineup shouldn’t hinder that standing; a heel turn often proves to serve as an incentive for casual fans to tune in, which is part of the reason why the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Duke Blue Devils are the perennial ratings sultans of their respective sports.
The Packers are set to appear in five more national games, including what’s sure to be a must-see outing against the Browns on Christmas Day. If precedent is anything to go by, Fox’s final Thursday Night Football broadcast should draw a full complement of egg nog-besotted fans; per Nielsen, last year’s Yuletide Vikings-Saints production delivered a record 20.1 million viewers and an 8.9 rating.
Also suiting up for the holiday is the Arizona Cardinals, which host the Colts in the late window on NFL Network. Since Kyler Murray and Co. were afforded just three national TV dates before the season began, finding opportunities to flex them into more coast-to-coast windows should be a priority for the league and the networks going forward. Otherwise, there are few surprises in store on the chart, as the Bucs’ high standing reflects the nation’s inexhaustible fascination with Tom Brady, while the Cowboys are gonna Cowboy. That Dallas are contenders, despite Sunday’s unexpected loss to the Broncos, will go a long way toward keeping them near the top of the heap. (For what it’s worth, the Pats have assumed the No. 1 spot by default, as their two national games were against Dallas and Tampa.)
Sunday’s turnout puts Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” back on pace to nail down its 13th straight season as TV’s most-watched program, although both it and CBS have some particularly promising games lined up in the back half of the schedule. And while NBC’s Sunday Night Football has begun to lose steam in recent weeks—the Nov. 7 Titans-Rams game drew a season-low 14.2 million viewers and an 8.1 rating—the NFL’s premiere primetime package is drawing 2.3 million more fans each week than it did a year ago, good for a 14% lift in overall impressions.
NBC isn’t the only NFL partner to experience a midseason dropoff; the national window shared by Fox and CBS is down a tick from the analogous period in 2020, although the average draw of 21.9 million viewers gives the Sunday afternoon slot a bit of an edge over the primetime showcase (19 million). All Nielsen linear TV averages include out-of-home deliveries.
If the 4:20 p.m. ET game no longer puts up the sort of epistaxis-producing numbers of yore—back in 2015, Fox’s national window averaged 27.9 million viewers, while the CBS package drew 25.9 million—today’s deliveries are doubly impressive by virtue of the fact that they’re occurring in the face of a rapid decline in linear TV usage. In the last seven years, overall TV viewership has fallen by nearly 40%, while over the same span the afternoon NFL window is down just 18%.
The strength of the NFL product is glaringly evident when the league’s stats are juxtaposed with everything else on TV. Not only do NFL windows account for the top six programs of the 2021-22 season, but the gap between pro football and primetime entertainment fare could only be spanned by a team of engineers and ironworkers. This is doubly true of the NFL’s performance in the all-important demo; through Week 9, Sunday Night Football is averaging 7.1 million adults 18-49, an assemblage of advertiser-coveted viewers that is 9.5 times larger than the 746,000 members of the under-50 set that the Big Four networks are scaring up with their various primetime offerings.
Then again, perhaps the only viable comparison to be made with the NFL is the NFL itself. Season-to-date, the league’s regional and national productions are averaging 16.3 million linear TV viewers, which marks a 9% improvement compared to last year’s 14.9 million and a 4% lift versus 15.7 million in 2019. As of Sunday night, 69 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts of 2021 are NFL games—and that number will only rise over the course of the next two months.
As remarkable as this hegemonic stranglehold over television may be, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the NFL’s weekly deliveries has to do with a certain form of marketplace agnosticism that is unique to the league. Look back at the chart and marvel at the drawing power of teams that operate well beyond the city limits of power enclaves like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Packers rep a comparatively tiny DMA of just 456,000 TV homes, accounting for 0.4% of the nation’s total tube-viewing population, and they’re in fine company with the likes of Pittsburgh, Kansas City and New Orleans.
While every other sport on the dial is in thrall to marketplace dynamics, the numbers game simply doesn’t apply to the NFL—at least on the national level. If the league’s fortunes were predicated on the success of the Jets and Giants, if New York’s 7.45 million TV homes lived and died with Gang Green and Big Blue, to the extent that another bad loss on Sunday afternoon led inexorably to the calculated avoidance of the five other weekly TV windows, then the ratings picture wouldn’t be anywhere near as rosy as it is now.