Why NFL Ratings Are Soaring
A brand embroiled in controversy. A star performer espouses a controversial stance on coronavirus vaccines. A top performer from the management ranks is exposed for making homophobic and racist slurs. I’m not talking about Spotify. I’m referring to the NFL. This is an organization that has found itself in the eye of the storm year after year, and I’m not just talking about the Colin Kaepernick saga. The NFL in 2021 has suffered embarrassments such as thee revelation of homophobic and racist emails made by Las Vegas Raiders Coach Jon Gruden, the ongoing controversy surrounding Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ anti-vaccine stance, and an investigation about the toxic workplace culture of the Washington Football Team.
But the 2021 season made big news for another reason: viewership averaged 17.1 million viewers (TV and digital), which was the highest regular-season average since 2015 and up more than 10% from 2020. Why? Because of the one factor the league has the least control over: the quality of the product on the field.
During the 2021 NFL regular season, there were 34 games decided by a game-winning score on the final play (the most in a single season all-time). 49 games were decided by a game-winning score in the final minute of regulation or overtime (tied for the most in a single season all-time). 175 games (64% of all games) were within one score (eight points) in the fourth quarter (that’s tied for the fourth-most all-time). It helped that the perennially polarizing Dallas Cowboys were competitive: the Cowboys played in five of the Top 10 most-watched NFL games during the 2021 regular season
The post-season has been no different. Fans have been treated to some stunning comebacks, thrilling overtime games, and close finishes, including the NFC and AFC Championship games, in which the Cincinnati Bengals came back from a 21–3 deficit to stun the favored Kansas City Chiefs, and the Los Angeles Rams roared back from a 17–7 deficit to beat the San Francisco 49ers 20–17. The NFL’s four divisional round matchups, which occurred before the league championship games, averaged 37.1 million viewers.
The games are not only close — they are exciting thanks to the rise of a number of dynamic players such as Patrick Mahomes (the Chiefs’ upset by the Bengals notwithstanding) and Cooper Kupp, who promise to keep attracting viewers for years to come.
The NFL has also been figuring out digital. Thanks to expanded programming on Peacock, Paramount+ and ESPN+, the NFL saw 370 billion total minutes streamed during the regular season. This was an 18% increase from 2020 and the second-highest total on record behind only 2015.
And the league is learning to live with off-the-field controversy and insert itself when it needs to — for example, fining the Washington Football Team $10 million in response to the investigation into its workplace culture. It’s worth noting that the league’s scandals are often viewed as one team’s problems, not necessarily the entire leagues. Fair or not, fans of the Washington Football Team’s rival teams may very well not mind it when the team is scandalized; a distraction that hurts the team’s chances to win helps another team’s fortunes. When controversial Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was ousted from the playoffs at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, the Twitterverse dunked on him massively, but how many fans really viewed him as “an NFL problem?” Social problems such as the Colin Kaepernick controversy seldom become PR issues for the entire league, per se. Remember: the NFL is a collection of brands.
And they’re firing on all cylinders right now.