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At the Half, the NFL Is on a Record Pace

Ratings, revenue up for league’s broadcast partners

Ray Rice and the Ravens defeated the Steelers 23-20 on Nov. 6. | Photo: George Gojkovich/Getty Images

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It’s halftime of the 2011-12 NFL season, and the league’s broadcast partners are putting up big numbers on both sides of the ball.

Through the first nine weeks of this year’s NFL campaign, all nationally televised games have averaged a draw of 17.9 million viewers, more than double the prime-time average (8.4 million) for the Big Four broadcast nets season to date.

At this juncture, NFL broadcasts account for 13 of the 15 most-watched programs on TV. No fewer than five NFL games have delivered 25 million viewers or more; tops among these is Fox’s Oct. 16 late game (Patriots-Cowboys), which scored 28.4 million viewers. The shootout was available in 95 percent of the country, although pockets along the Gulf Coast saw the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game.

The only non-football fare to crack the list were CBS’ Two and a Half Men and Game 7 of the World Series. The Sheen-free season premiere of Men delivered 28.7 million viewers on Sept. 19, edging the Cowboys-Pats game by some 300,000 viewers, while the Cardinals clinched their 11th MLB title on Oct. 28 in front of 25.4 million Fox viewers.

Remarkably, nine of the highest-rated NFL games aired in a national, non-prime window. Fox claimed six of these broadcasts, while CBS hosted the other three. NBC’s Sunday Night Football accounted for four of the most-watched programs of the new TV season; tops among these was the network’s Sept. 8 Thursday night kickoff battle between the Saints and Packers (27.2 million viewers and a 10.9 rating among adults 18-49).

Through its first 10 SNF broadcasts, NBC is averaging a record 21.4 million viewers and an 8.6 rating in the demo. Seven games have drawn an 8.0 rating or higher, and of these, three have notched a 10.0-plus in the demo.

NBC’s ratings would be even stronger were it not for Peyton Manning’s neck injury, which has made a shambles of the Indianapolis Colts. In what amounted to football’s answer to the practice of clubbing baby seals, New Orleans stomped Indy by a score of 62-7 on Oct. 23—an exhibition witnessed by 12.5 million Saints fans and/or unreconstructed sadists.

Luckily for NBC, it can now invoke the NFL flex rule, whereby unpromising matchups are relegated to the early game on CBS or Fox. This week, NBC announced it had bounced the Week 13 Colts-Patriots game scheduled for Dec. 4. A replacement for the shifted matchup has not been set.

Media buyers say a 30-second spot in Sunday Night Football now fetches around $500,000 a pop, up nearly 24 percent from last season.

All four broadcast partners are sharing the wealth. Fox is averaging 20 million viewers, putting it on pace for its most-watched NFL season ever, while CBS is averaging 17.1 million viewers, marking its second most successful campaign since it began televising the AFC package in 1998.

On cable, ESPN’s Monday Night Football is averaging 13.2 million viewers, down 8 percent year over year. Like NBC, ESPN has been saddled with a few stinkers, including Ravens-Jaguars on Oct. 24 (9.28 million total viewers/5.15 million adults 18-49) and a penalty-studded Colts-Bucs game that probably ruined football for an entire generation of casual fans. That comedy of errors drew 10.8 million viewers and 5.7 million members of the demo.

Thus far in 2011, ESPN has aired three blockbusters. On Sept. 26, the Cowboys and Redskins drew a season-high 17.1 million viewers and 9.2 million adults 18-49, a bruiser that was followed in short order by Detroit-Chicago on Oct. 10. In its first MNF appearance in a decade, the Lions ran down the Bears 24-13 in front of a national TV audience of 16.4 million viewers. Of these, more than half (8.87 million) were adults 18-49.

More recently (Nov. 7), the Bears rallied to effectively end the Eagles’ playoff hopes in a MNF game that delivered 16.8 million viewers.

Based on buyer estimates, a 30-second spot on MNF costs just over $300,000.

Despite a lack of live game coverage—its eight-game package kicks in tonight (Nov. 10) with a Chargers-Raiders brawl—NFL Network viewership is up 21 percent in prime time and up 17 percent on Sundays. As of a week ago, NFL Network had sold more than 80 percent of its in-game inventory.

Along with its unmatchable reach, the NFL also offers marketers a few less publicized gems. Last season, women accounted for 33 percent of the Sunday Night Football audience, and if a recent Adweek/Harris poll is anything to go by, the potential for growth in the demo is enormous. According to this survey, 55 percent of American women say they watch televised NFL games, while another 85 percent say they consume their sports live. If nothing else, those numbers represent an almost criminally overlooked pool of engaged viewers who aren’t going to be zapping through your advertising any time soon.

While it doesn’t skew toward the bubble-gummers, the NFL does deliver a relatively young audience. Per Nielsen, the median age of the SNF viewer in 2010 was 45.7 years, comfortably below the overall network prime-time median (50.9).