NFL Caps Another Powerhouse Season

While deliveries dip slightly, football remains the only game in town

While the National Football League remains the last great reach vehicle for advertisers, ratings for regular-season broadcasts were down slightly from 2011.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the 101 games televised nationally over the course of the 2012 campaign averaged 16.6 million total viewers, marking a decline of 5 percent versus the year-ago 17.5 million.

In the aggregate, the five nets (NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and NFL Network) averaged a 10.1 household rating and a 6.1 in the 18-49 demo. Both measures were off four-tenths of a ratings point from the 2011 regular-season averages.

NBC’s Sunday Night Football generated the biggest NFL deliveries, averaging 21.4 million viewers, a 12.8 household rating and an 8.2 in the adults 18-49 demo. The prime-time showcase dipped just 1 percent from 21.5 million viewers in 2011, while the household and demo ratings were similarly consistent (12.9, 8.4).

On average, clients who bought time on Sunday Night Football paid a unit cost of around $545,000 per 30-second spot.

Coming in right on the heels of NBC was Fox, which delivered an average crowd of 19.8 million viewers with its slate of early-afternoon and late games. Fox’s NFL coverage also was all but flat versus 2011, slipping 1 percent versus 20.1 million viewers.

Fox’s NFL broadcasts also delivered gaudy ratings, averaging an 11.8 HH and a 7.0 in the 18-49 demo. Last year’s averages were 11.9 and 7.3, respectively.

Setting aside the NFL Playoffs and Super Bowl, Fox boasts the single-highest unit cost on television. Per SQAD NetCosts data, a :30 in the network’s late games cost around $589,000 a pop. Fox’s early contests were priced at an estimated $365,000 per 30-second spot.

Fox commanded steep pricing increases for its late-game inventory, taking in more than $100,000 more per spot in 2012 than a year ago, a jump of 21 percent year over year. Early-game increases were less steep; in 2011, a spot in a 1 p.m. EST broadcast cost $340,000.

CBS once again took third place with its smaller-market AFC package, averaging 17.7 million viewers, down 4 percent versus 18.4 million. CBS’ NFL coverage served up a 10.7 HH rating, down a few ticks from an 11.0, and a 6.1 in the 18-49 demo, off four-tenths of a ratings point versus the year-ago 6.5.

According to the SQAD NetCost estimates, CBS’ late-game unit cost declined from $420,000 a pop in 2011 to $385,000 this season. Early-game rates grew 13 percent to $316,000.

On the cable front, ESPN closed out its seventh season of Monday Night Football with an average draw of 12.8 million viewers, an 8.2 HH rating and a 5.1 in the 18-49 demo. ESPN’s declines were generally in line with the other NFL partners, as total deliveries inched down 3 percent, HH ratings were off two-tenths of a point and the 18-49 set was off 6 percent from a 5.4.

ESPN’s average unit cost for airtime on Monday Night Football was up 5 percent to $340,000.

Boasting an overstuffed roster of 13 regular-season telecasts, NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football averaged 6.35 million viewers, a 4.0 HH rating and a 2.6 in the dollar demo. As TNF’s offering expanded from eight games, its deliveries went up accordingly—HH ratings jumped 11 percent from a year-ago 3.6.

The biggest single-game draw of the 2012 NFL season was the very last game on the calendar. NBC’s presentation of Dallas and Washington’s Dec. 30 battle for the NFC East title delivered 30.3 million total viewers, a 17.0 HH rating and a 10.5 in the demo. The Cowboys-Skins showdown was the most-watched regular-season broadcast in 16 years.

One of the few NFL matchups that failed to meet expectations was NBC’s inaugural prime-time Thanksgiving broadcast. As the New England Patriots relentlessly put the hurt on a woeful New York Jets squad, viewers tuned out in droves. While the opening kickoff was watched by some 25 million fans, the full broadcast averaged 19.2 million viewers.

The 49-19 mugging didn’t do NBC any favors on the HH ratings front, either. While media buyers said that NBC had guaranteed a 19 HH rating, the final tally was nearly half that (10.2).

NBC said it had secured a unit cost of $975,000 per spot for its first Turkey Bowl broadcast.

If the NFL didn’t gain much traction in 2012, the deliveries were leagues ahead of anything else on the tube. And the ratings growth versus just a few years ago is remarkable. Per Nielsen, the 2008 regular season averaged 14.6 million viewers, 2 million shy (or -12 percent) compared to this year. In the four-year period, HH ratings have improved 12 percent, while the 18-49 demo has grown 11 percent.