When viewed from a distance, the National Football league didn’t have the greatest year in 2021. There were threats of mass boycotts before the season even began, as well as the ongoing concern over current and former players suffering from CTE. Once play started, COVID-19 outbreaks forced teams to field 3rd-string lineups and even some games to be postponed for several days. Star players courted controversy and public ridicule while others wound up in jail.
Some coaches generated their share of bad publicity too, as one showed himself to be a racist homophobe, and another highly paid, high profile coach demonstrated he simply wasn’t fit for the NFL. Even an NFL team owner managed to serve as a constant source of bad press.
What Went Right
In spite of all of that, NFL TV viewership hit a five-year high in the 2021 season. In fact, 91 of the top 100 telecasts of any kind in 2021 were NFL games. On top of that, the Thanksgiving Day game between the Cowboys and Raiders was viewed by an average of 40.8 million people, making it the most-watched regular season game in the last 31 years. Overall, one television executive called the 2021 season “the most successful season I can remember in a long time.”
The expanded season and addition of a 17th game gave more viewers more opportunities to watch their favorite teams. And, the addition of more wild card teams to the playoff picture kept more teams in contention, and more fans engaged, literally until the last play of the last game of the season. And, the wild card round blowouts aside, the playoffs delivered some great games and even higher TV ratings.
What Helped Ratings Soar?
One factor in the improved TV ratings was the continued increase in out-of-home streaming views of NFL games, which jumped 18% in 2021, the second-highest increase ever. In addition, 2021 was the first season that ratings arbiter Nielsen factored in streaming viewers to its ratings, which helped provide an overall ratings bump. A third element was a return to some degree of normalcy after the 2020 season was disrupted by COVID-19 and many fans altered their viewing habits. And don’t forget the Nickelodeon NFL broadcast, which brought a new approach, huge ratings, and likely a lot of new football viewers.
All those numbers reinforce the notion that television powers the National Football League. And as long as the TV ratings are good, the networks will continue lining up to fork over billions for the broadcast rights. In fact, according to a recent ESPN article, “Those numbers will only go up in future years as “Thursday Night Football” heads fulltime to Prime Video next season, as well as exclusive streaming games on ESPN + and Peacock when the new television contract begins in 2023. The league’s “Sunday Ticket” package with DirecTV expires after next season, with many expecting multiple carriers to make a bid.”
So, despite all the bad press, bumbling PR fiascoes, and on-field and off-field dramas and controversies, it seems the NFL’s TV product is more popular than ever. And as more people tune in, the league seems poised to continue as a TV rating juggernaut. And that will keep the team owners and the league’s broadcast partners quite happy. In fact, it seems the only folks who won’t be happy about pro football’s ongoing TV success are those who keep making doom and gloom predictions about the NFL’s demise.