As the NFL pivots to the postseason, advertisers are taking stock of their $4 billion investment in the league’s slate of 271 national and regional games. Despite the epistaxis-producing expense of aligning one’s brand with TV’s last great reach vehicle, marketers that bought time during the Sunday CBS, Fox and NBC productions are pretty chuffed about the fall turnout.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the NFL averaged 16.7 million viewers over the course of the regular season, and while those deliveries amounted to a 3% decline compared to the year-ago tally (17.1 million), the shrinkage was almost entirely a function of the shift of Thursday Night Football from linear TV to Amazon Prime Video’s streaming service. Exclude those 15 games from the calculus, and the NFL posted a tidy 4% gain, averaging nearly 18 million viewers since the season kicked off on Sept. 8.
Either accounting method points to yet another triumph for the league, which served up those bulked-up numbers during an interval in which primetime entertainment deliveries slid 9% to 3.82 million viewers per show.
Leading the charge for the NFL were the broadcast networks, each of which notched year-over-year gains. NBC’s Sunday Night Football package averaged 19.9 million viewers, with streaming impressions accounting for nearly 6% (1.2 million) of the network’s overall deliveries. NBC’s overall NFL numbers marked a 3% increase versus last season’s 19.3 million viewers, giving SNF its strongest showing since the 2019-20 campaign.
NBC reaped the benefits of the most competitive NFL season in memory, as its 20 games were among the most hotly contested of 2022. Not only did an 8.9-point margin of victory mark an all-time low for NBC’s games—last season’s spread was a less compelling 12.8 points per game—but also, no fewer than 13 of NBC’s contests were settled by one score. Nail-biters keep fans tuned in, and the NFL served them up throughout the season; the league-wide average margin of victory of 9.7 points per game was the lowest since 1935. (Across the board, 155 NFL games this season were settled by a single score, up 24% versus 125. Blowouts were down 29%, with 73 games being settled by two touchdowns or more, down from 103 in 2021.)
For advertisers, SNF’s pricey ad rates—during the spring upfront bazaar, NBC commanded nearly $840,000 for each in-game unit sold—paid off in primetime’s largest assemblage of fans in the coveted 18-49 demo. NBC’s broadcasts averaged 6.69 million adults under 50, or 11.3 times the average primetime entertainment program delivery (590,439). TV’s top-rated non-NFL series, the 55-year-old CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, is currently averaging 1.4 million adults 18-49.
While NBC extended its primetime winning streak to 12 years, Fox and CBS continued their dominance in the Sunday afternoon windows. Fox’s national “America’s Game of the Week” package, which includes its annual Thanksgiving Day broadcast, averaged 24.1 million viewers per game, good for a 4% lift versus 2021. All told, Fox’s bundle of regional and national games averaged 19.4 million viewers, giving the network its strongest NFL deliveries since 2016.
That Fox managed to notch a six-year ratings high in the absence of its longtime lead broadcast battery of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman probably tells you all you need to know about the correlation between a network’s booth personnel and the final Nielsen ratings. At any rate, Fox’s NFC-heavy slate justified its dizzying ad rates, which averaged out to nearly $900,000 a throw across the back end of each Sunday afternoon doubleheader.
CBS took full advantage of its hybrid schedule, as six of its national windows featured must-see inter-conference matchups. The network reached a Sunday high-water mark with Week 2’s Bengals-Cowboys showdown, which averaged 27.5 million viewers in 81% of all markets. CBS’s coast-to-coast schedule featured just two all-AFC pairings (Bills-Chiefs, Chiefs-Bengals), and by taking on more NFC teams than ever before, the network got more play in many of the larger media markets. (Including the shared New York and Los Angeles markets, eight of the 10 largest DMAs are home to an NFC franchise.)
With more Cowboys, Bucs and Giants games on tap, CBS scored its most-watched NFL campaign in seven years, averaging 18.5 million viewers across its Sunday slate. Isolate the 10 “NFL on CBS” national windows, and the Tiffany network averaged 23.5 million viewers, up 9% from last season’s 21.6 million. Advertisers in the upfront who secured time in CBS’ late-afternoon NFL broadcasts forked over around $720,000 a pop, while the harder-to-come-by scatter units topped the $800,000 mark.
Many of the league’s most compelling young quarterbacks call the AFC home, but the signal callers from the NFC still draw the biggest crowds. Among teams with four or more national appearances—although they appear at the top of the chart, the Lions (two games) and Giants (three) fell shy of qualifying—the Dallas Cowboys put up their usual garish numbers in 2022, averaging a league-high 25.5 million viewers per game, up 11% from last season. Despite a midseason stretch that saw them drop seven of eight games, grizzled superstar and ratings booster Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers repeated as the NFL’s second-biggest draw, averaging 22.4 million viewers in 11 national outings.
Jerry Jones’ crew factored in four of the NFL’s top five broadcasts, a highlight reel that includes the team’s Tryptophan Bowl duel with the Giants, which scared up a record 42.1 million viewers on Fox. One of those broadcasts was against the Packers; 29.2 million fans tuned in for the Green Bay’s 31-28 overtime win over Dallas at Lambeau Field on Nov. 13.
If the legacy broadcast networks managed to deliver year-over-year gains in the face of the TV’s ongoing ratings erosion, the league’s cable and streaming partners weren’t as fortunate. Deliveries for ESPN’s Monday Night Football package slipped 5% versus the year-ago period, although much of that decline can be chalked up to an overlapping Week 2 doubleheader which split fans between the Bills’ 41-7 blowout of the Titans on the cable flagship, and a Vikings-Eagles matchup on ABC that was blighted by a scoreless second half. Blend the deliveries for those two games and MNF effectively matched its 2021 average.
ESPN also had to contend with the acceleration of the national cord-cutting trend, which culminated in a 10% drop in cable/satellite/telco-TV subscribers in the third quarter alone. Per MoffettNathanson estimates, the pay-TV players closed out the July 1-Sept. 30 quarter with 62.2 million video subs, bringing pay-TV penetration down to just 50% of all U.S. TV homes. Eight years ago, 86% of Americans were subscribed to the bundle.
Lastly, the NFL’s $11 billion streaming gambit kicked off with an entirely predictable decline in overall impressions, as Amazon Prime’s inaugural season of Thursday Night Football averaged 9.58 million viewers per game. That was well shy of the 12.6 million impressions that had been guaranteed to advertisers during the upfront, and was down 14% versus the 16.2 million viewers who tuned in last year for the Fox/NFL Network package. While Amazon has had to issue a slew of makegoods, it’s almost impossible to overstate how unbothered anyone is by those TNF deliveries. For one thing, Amazon’s $972.8 billion market cap effectively insulates it from having to worry much about dishing out a couple-ten-million in audience deficiency units. More to the point, the NFL is over the moon about those Year One deliveries, which included a whole bunch of hard-to-reach younger viewers.
According to Nielsen, 22% of the TNF audience was composed of adults 18-34—a veritable fountain of youth compared to the gerontocracy that represents broadcast primetime viewers. Season-to-date, the Thursday night entertainment series are delivering an audience of which only 4% are members of the 18-34 set. Moreover, Amazon’s average delivery of 2.11 adults 18-34 per game marks an 11% improvement compared to the year-ago Fox/NFLN draw. The influx of younger viewers washed a lot of the gray away on Thursday nights; with a median age of 47, the TNF audience was seven years younger than the average fan taking in the NFL on traditional TV on Sundays.
Amazon’s youth movement is even more compelling in light of the moth-eaten state of Thursday’s primetime TV audience. At last count, the weekly slate of broadcast dramas and comedies is scaring up an audience with a median age of 64 years.
Not only does the new-look TNF represent a newly discovered fountain of youth, but its relative popularity among a group of consumers who have little or no interest in linear TV suggests that the NFL may have figured out a way to reach the people who will make up the bulk of the fan base some 20 years from now. What’s 6.6 million vanished TNF viewers, give or take, when Amazon promises to future-proof your $25 billion business?