NFL, the Only Game in Town

Pro football dominates fall TV ratings

If there was ever any doubt that television is merely a delivery system for the National Football League, the ratings through Week 6 of the 2011-12 campaign should put any lingering skepticism to rest.

Since NBC kicked off the season on Sept. 7, NFL broadcasts have accounted for 13 of the 15 most-watched fall TV programs. In fact, the only non-football fare to crack the list is CBS’ Two and a Half Men. The launch of the Charlie Sheen-free sitcom—aka Mr. Kelso Goes to Malibu—delivered 28.7 million viewers on Sept. 19, edging Fox’s most recent late game by some 300,000 viewers.

The Oct. 16 AFC East grudge match between the New England Patriots and New York Jets was available in 95 percent of the country, although pockets along the Gulf Coast saw the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game. (Maryland was blacked out of Fox’s late NFL broadcast.)

Remarkably, eight of the highest-rated NFL games aired in a national, non-prime window. Fox claimed five of these broadcasts, while CBS hosted the other three. NBC’s Sunday Night Football accounted for five of the most-watched programs of the new TV season; tops among these was the network’s Thursday Night Kickoff battle between the Saints and Packers (27.2 million viewers and an 11.6 rating among adults 18-49).

Through its first seven SNF broadcasts, NBC is averaging 22.2 million viewers and a 9.1 rating in the demo, up 5 percent versus the same period in 2010. Five games have delivered in excess of 20 million viewers and an 8.0 rating, with the outliers including a parking lot mugging—on Oct. 9, 18.9 million sadists watched the Ravens beat up the Jets by a score of 34-17—and a good old-fashioned stomping (the Bears’ 39-10 evisceration of the Vikings drew 16.6 million viewers and a 6.6 rating).

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck with another potential dud, as the Saints this Sunday take on the luckless (0-6) Colts in the Louisiana Superdome. Since Peyton Manning’s season-scotching neck surgeries, the Colts are off to their worst start since 1997, ranking 28th in points per game and passing yards.

Because it’s far too early in the season to invoke the NFL flex schedule, NBC is more or less stuck with the Colts. That said, the Saints tend to put up some big deliveries—71 percent of the TV households in New Orleans tuned into the Oct. 16 Saints-Bucs game on Fox—so it’s possible that Sunday’s game may still notch at least a 6.7 in the demo. 

Look for NBC to bounce back on Oct. 30, when the always reliable Dallas Cowboys butt heads with their NFC East rival Philadelphia. In Dallas’ first SNF appearance on Sept. 11, Tony Romo and Co. bowed to a rallying Jets squad, 27-24, in a nail-biter that drew 25.8 million viewers and a 10.7 rating.

Next month promises to be even more compelling, as NBC gets set to air smash-mouth meetings between the Ravens and Steelers (Nov. 6), Pats and Jets (Nov. 13) and Eagles and Giants (Nov. 20).

Media buyers say a 30-second spot in Sunday Night Football now fetches $425,000 a pop. Under the terms of its eight-year contract with the league, NBC pays $603 million per season for the rights to carry its weekly NFL game. As is the case with fellow rights holders CBS and Fox, NBC’s contract expires at the conclusion of the 2013 season.

ESPN re-upped with the NFL in September, signing an eight-year, $15.5 billion deal to retain its Monday Night Football franchise. Through the first seven games of the season, ESPN has weathered slight declines in deliveries.

According to Nielsen, Monday Night Football is averaging 13.4 million viewers, down 6 percent from 14.3 million a year ago. ESPN is averaging 7.32 million adults 18-49, off 7 percent from 7.88 million in the first seven MNF telecasts of 2010.

At this juncture a year ago, ESPN already had aired four installments of MNF that served up 15 million viewers or more. The biggest draw was its Sept. 27, 2010, Bears-Packers broadcast, which had 17.5 million viewers and 9.43 million members of the demo.

ESPN has carried two blockbusters thus far in 2011. On Sept. 26, a more-shattered-than-usual Romo lifted the Cowboys over the Redskins by an 18-16 margin, in a bruiser that drew a season-high 17.1 million viewers and 9.2 million adults 18-49. Then on Oct. 10, the Lions appeared on MNF for the first time in a decade, beating the Bears 24-13 in front of a national television audience of 16.4 million viewers. Of these, more than half (8.87 million) were adults 18-49.

Like NBC, ESPN has been saddled with a few stinkers, including Giants-Rams on Sept. 19 (11.9 million/6.19 million adults 18-49) and a penalty-studded Colts-Bucs game that probably scared off a generation of casual football fans. That drew 10.8 million viewers and 5.7 million members of the demo.

Some of the more promising games on ESPN’s slate include: Bears-Eagles (Nov. 9), Vikings-Packers (Nov. 16) and Steelers-49ers (Dec. 19).

On average, MNF doubles the deliveries of its closest cable competition. For example, the Bears-Lions game averaged 8.87 million adults 18-49 on Oct. 10; that same week, Season 2 of AMC’s zombie hit The Walking Dead premiered to 4.81 million viewers, making it the most-watched scripted series in cable history.

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

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.

The NFL also skews young, but not so young that clients are reaching Justin Bieber cultists. The median age of the SNF viewer in 2010 was 45.7 years, comfortably below the overall network prime-time median (50.9).

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