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NFL TV ratings rose 5% this season—but are still far from 2015 peak

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

NFL television ratings for the 2019 regular season rose 5% over 2018, according to Nielsen numbers shared by the NFL.

Average viewership per game came in at 16.5 million, putting the 2019 season equal with 2016 ratings. ESPN’s Monday Night Football saw the greatest gain, up 8% over last year, while Fox’s games were up 7%, and CBS and NBC games rose 4%.

It is the second season in a row that NFL ratings have gone up 5% overall, after two seasons in a row of declines amid the player protests started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. NFL games this season made up all top 10 of the most-watched live TV broadcasts from September through December, 28 of the top 30, and 47 of the top 50.

The ratings growth will help the NFL in the renegotiations of its TV contracts with CBS, NBC, Fox, and ESPN, which all expire in 2022.

But the league hasn’t gotten back to 2015 levels, when the average viewership was 18.7 million. That further cements the popular consensus that NFL ratings peaked in 2015, and are unlikely to return to that level amid widespread cord-cutting.

Even if that is the case, it is a secular trend affecting all live television and all the major sports leagues, and the NFL looks like it is weathering it the best. The league’s digital viewership (through the NFL’s own streaming options, Verizon, Amazon Prime, or digital options from the broadcasters themselves) rose 51% over last year.

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills, left, tries to stop Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup (13) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

In fact, the NFL has had an extremely successful year while its peer leagues have had to navigate major scandals or crises of reputation: the NBA season began with a political storm in China sparked by a single tweet from a team executive supporting the Hong Kong protesters, and NBA ratings are down 17% through the first two months of the NBA season on ESPN and TNT; MLB is currently investigating the Houston Astros, who have been in two of the past three World Series and are now accused of an insidious cheating scheme using cameras to steal signs.

The NFL lived through two years of political controversy (and angry tweets from President Trump) and came out on the other side. It certainly has important problems that won’t go away (head injuries), but in 2019 it avoided major scandal, apart from a botched Colin Kaepernick tryout that many saw as a P.R. stunt by the league.

The top five most-watched games this season included three Dallas Cowboys games and two New England Patriots games: Buffalo at Dallas on CBS in Week 13 (32.6 million viewers); Dallas at New England on Fox in Week 12 (29.9 million); Kansas City at New England on CBS in Week 14 (28.3 million); Chicago at Detroit on Fox in Week 13 (27.1 million); and Dallas at Philadelphia on Fox in Week 16 (25.7 million).

The NFL Playoffs begin on Saturday, all leading up to Super Bowl 54 in Miami on Feb. 2.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

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CBS NFL broadcaster James Brown: Kaepernick tryout is not a PR stunt

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Jerry Jones: Sports betting will raise value of NFL TV rights by 50%

Ad exec says Nike reaped $100 million in free media from Kaepernick ad

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