In 2016 and 2017, the league saw sluggish ratings, with its numbers down and plenty of blame to go around. Some said it was because of injured players and boring games. President Trump blamed the ratings dip on players kneeling during the National Anthem. Even the contentious 2016 presidential election was seemingly a factor.
Those days are a distant memory following two seasons of viewership growth, which has made the NFL even more of a ratings powerhouse. On Thursday night the league embarks on a new season as the defending Super Bowl champions, Kansas City Chiefs, take on the Houston Texans.
This season will be unlike any other, given that it’s kicking off in the middle of a global pandemic and another heated presidential election. Even so, the league will likely see viewership increase yet
“I think that the interest in football, and particularly in the NFL, is heightened by the fact that we haven’t had any football since the Super Bowl. There was no preseason, and many of the premier college games that normally open the season weren’t there because of Covid,” Rosenstein told CNN Business. “There’s a lot of anticipation for football right now, and the league will ride that into the season.”
Rosenstein added that he expects the NFL’s numbers to see a bump of “about 5%” from last year, but noted that it’s difficult to make any prediction because of Covid-19.
“What happens if key players can’t play because they caught the virus?” he said. “If the league’s protocols put players, or even whole teams, on the sideline for weeks at a time, then that messes with the matchups, which could mess with the ratings.”
According to football writer Peter King, players who test positive could miss one or two games. An outbreak could have huge ramifications on the NFL’s 16-game season.
“The virus does whatever it wants, so obviously it could impact the NFL in a major way,” Rosenstein said. “But if they’re able to play through the pandemic, I don’t think there’s any way that the numbers will not go up.”
Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant, thinks the ratings will “either be flat or slightly up” this year. He noted that the league’s ratings might also get a “tailwind” from out-of-home viewing — a new metric from Nielsen that tracks viewers watching programming at bars, hotels, or other people’s homes — now that strict quarantines have ended.
“If the league were to be flat to up this season, that is a major win for television, and it probably further solidifies the NFL as the most important media property on the planet,” Crakes said. “Even after all this confusion, change, and competition, the NFL still can deliver 20 million viewers to you live across a three and a half-hour period on an average minute basis. There’s nothing anywhere that does that on any platform.”
Beyond the pandemic, the league will also be dealing with an intense presidential election between President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. In 2016, the election between Trump and Hillary Clinton appeared to disrupt the NFL’s numbers, but this year that’s unlikely to be the case.
“Audiences were enamored with the 2016 election because Clinton was the first woman running in a major party, and Trump was such an improbable candidate. It was a built-in experience that can’t really be replicated in 2020,” Rosenstein said. “I think outside of the two debates on Thursday night, which are opposite NFL games, I don’t see the election having much of an effect on the numbers this season.”
This season’s ratings also may be more closely watched than in recent years because the TV rights deals with the league’s broadcasting partners are ending soon.
The NFL’s agreements with NBC, Fox, and CBS, which run until the 2022 season, and its agreement with ESPN, which runs until 2021, are incredibly lucrative for the league and vitally important to the networks.
Ratings can play a role in negotiations, but whatever the numbers are this year, the “NFL can’t lose,” as it heads into its talks with networks, according to Crakes.
“The league is in this place where even if its ratings went backward, its value would still nearly double versus what it was the last time it made a deal with the networks,” he said.