The NFL's flagging TV ratings over the past two years haven't just been a business concern for the league and the networks that broadcast them; they've been a hot-button political issue for President Trump and his supporters, who've argued that the league was doomed so long as it allowed players to kneel in protest over police brutality and social injustice during the National Anthem. But after two seasons of bad press over falling viewership, the league has something to celebrate now: Its ratings are up.
About a month into the 2018 season, the numbers are up around 2% compared to this time last year, attracting an average of 15.6 million viewers across its network partners, according to Nielsen data. That might not seem like much, but at a time when ratings have been falling across network TV and people are turning to multiple streaming services, it's a huge win.
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So why are ratings up now? Well, there are a few possible factors, but perhaps the biggest one might be this: The NFL wasn't that exciting to watch the past couple years. But it's great now.
Fans love scoring and NFL teams have provided a lot of it so far this season. Teams have scored 3,739 points, which is the most through week five in NFL history, according to the league. That includes 424 touchdowns and 275 touchdown passes, which are the most through week five in history.
It's not just the high-flying offenses that have made this season exciting; the games have also been competitive. The average margin of victory through week five is 9.96 points per game. 45 games have been decided by just one score (8 points or fewer), which is tied for most in NFL history at this point in the season.
In addition to simply putting out a better product, another possible factor is that the league has mostly avoided the kind of off-the-field controversy that has dogged it in previous years, according to Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and an expert on Super Bowl advertising.
"The NFL has gotten a lot of negative press the last few years and there was a real worry that would decrease viewership numbers," Calkins told CNN Business. "The fact that the numbers seem to be stabilizing, or even up a little bit, is terrific news for the NFL."
Players were diagnosed with more concussions last year than any season since 2012, the year the NFL first started making its data public. And while Trump has tweeted about the NFL and anthem protests this season, "the controversial stories just aren't at the top of the headlines at the moment," he said.
Another factor that may be making a difference in ratings: The Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports gambling in May.
"We suspect legalized sports betting has been a major reason why ratings have stabilized as much as they have," Brian Hughes, an executive vice president at Magna, which monitors audience trends. said. "Viewers have more invested both literally and figuratively in the game."
NFL games are still the biggest ratings draw on TV and the recent bump shows that the league can still keep fans engaged. It's still early in the season but so far this is a victory for both the NFL and its TV partners.
"It's hard to remain distinctive and the NFL has remained distinctive," Jay Rosenstein, an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch Institute for Global Sport and a former VP of programming at CBS Sports, told CNN Business. "It's the ultimate entertainment programming because of its unpredictability and live nature."
Perhaps the best news for the NFL and its network partners is that ratings could still go up more later this year and next.
Some of the teams that have historically been the biggest draws on TV, like the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, aren't very good this year. Meanwhile, the teams that have been most exciting, like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams, have small fan bases. Fans may not yet realize that a game between the Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars is as much a must-see as one between the Giants and Cowboys ever was, but they likely will very soon.
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