After years of declines, NFL television ratings are showing modest gains.
Three of the league's television partners have shown increases after the first nine weeks of the season while one remains flat. That is welcome news after ratings decreased 9.7 percent last season and 8 percent in 2016.
"I'm glad the league has turned the corner. The top teams are very exciting and there are plenty of high-scoring games," said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs his own sports television consulting company.
Pilson said a major ratings driver has been the emergence of young quarterbacks like the Rams' Jared Goff, the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and the Bears' Mitchell Trubisky. That has created a buzz not only with their teams but throughout the league.
Another factor is that player protests against social and racial injustice during the national anthem have not been a major storyline this season. Pilson noted that "a few of those folks who said they were going to stop watching I don't know how many did."
NBC's "Sunday Night Football" package has shown the biggest improvement with an 8 percent increase from last season. It is averaging 19.7 million viewers, compared to 18.3 million last season.
This past Sunday's game between the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots averaged a league-high 23.7 million, and was the largest prime-time audience on any network since ABC aired the Academy Awards in March. NBC has seen increases all but one week compared to last season.
"We're looking forward to the second half of our schedule, which features many crucial divisional matchups, the Thanksgiving night game, plus the Week 17 flex game. We expect 'Sunday Night Football' to finish atop the prime-time rankings yet again," NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said in a statement.
ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is averaging 11.418 million, which is up 3 percent (11.135 million). Pilson has been critical of scheduling for Thursday and Monday nights in past seasons, but he said the league has made improvements in those areas. ESPN will have one of the marquee games of the season on Nov. 19 when Kansas City faces the Los Angeles Rams in Mexico City.
"For years I thought that they were burying those two nights but they have improved dramatically," he said.
CBS's Sunday afternoon games are averaging 15.713 million viewers, which is up 1 percent from last season (15.528 million). This past Sunday's slate of five games, which was headlined by Pittsburgh at Baltimore, had a 10.0 household rating, which was up 23 percent from the same week last season.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, whose network has the 2019 Super Bowl, has been pleased with advertising sales for the rest of the season and the Feb. 3 championship game in Atlanta.
"There are a number of very good stories. Kansas City is a team of national interest, Mahomes has become a legit star and a lot of the big teams — including New Orleans, Pittsburgh and New England — are playing very well," he said.
Fox's Sunday afternoon coverage is averaging more viewers than CBS at 17.299 million, but this is a decrease of less than 1 percent from last season (17.414 million).
The only package that has sharply declined is Thursday Night Football. It is averaging 12.522 million viewers in its first season on Fox, which is down from the 14.134 million on CBS last season. Fox is hopeful that the numbers can rebound over the next month, which includes Green Bay at Seattle (Nov. 15), New Orleans at Dallas (Nov. 29) and the Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City (Dec. 13).
Pilson and McManus think the league's overall improvements could carry through the second half. That's even better news for McManus, as he sees a number of potential Super Bowl matchups that would bode well for CBS.
"I'm encouraged. There are a lot of good storylines that will carry throughout the next couple months," he said. "With so much going on that is negative, people are looking for an escape and football provides that for a lot of people."
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