While in most years its players on the field who defy the odds, the National Football League is taking its crack at the underdog story by overcoming one of the toughest viewership seasons it has seen.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic showed just how much disruption it could cause beyond the health of the nation. The NFL managed to avoid a shortened or cancelled season (unlike the NHL, NBA, and MLB), but the multi-billion dollar franchise still suffered heavily due to numerous COVID cases, game reschedulings, and a drastic change in ratings.
Average NFL viewership had been on the decline from 2016 to 2018, but the league saw a rise of over a million viewers in 2019. That progress was all but crushed in 2020, as the total viewers from 2019 to 2020 dipped by 1.9 million and hit lows (14.9 million viewers) that the NFL hasn’t had to endure in more than a decade.
Forbes had predicted that major sports leagues would continue to see rating drops in 2021 due to a number of factors. One was the idea that due to more people working from home due to the pandemic, viewing habits would become irregular. This in turn would hurt sports games, which are scheduled and lack flexibility.
In addition, threats to the NFL’s ratings that existed even before COVID-19, such as the rise of streaming services and disinterest or lack of attention from viewers, continue to loom large.
Coming into the new season, the impact from COVID-19 had increased due to the nation-wide disagreement over vaccines. Despite the NFL requiring staffs and coaches to be vaccinated in 2021, players were able to avoid being mandated to take the shot thanks to player unions.
The vaccine fight showed the sports world sides of locker rooms that would be better off hidden. One particularly selfish situation involved Washington Football Team’s head coach Ron Rivera, who battled and ultimately won against cancer. Even with his status of being high risk, the WFT team remained just around 50% vaccinated in June, to which Rivera expressed his harsh displeasure.
Since that time, Washington and the majority of teams in the league have reached 95% immunization. Additionally, 93% of all total players in the league have received the vaccine, according to a Bloomberg report.
Of course, the players who are the sticking points on the path to 100% immunization have made themselves quite a nuisance. Look no further for the prime example than Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley. Over the summer, Beasley took to Twitter multiple occasions to argue with fans over his choice to remain unvaccinated, saying that while he might die of COVID-19, he would “rather die living.”
As part of the new COVID-19 protocols by the NFL, Beasley was fined $14,650 in late August for not properly wearing a mask at the team’s facilities, which all unvaccinated players are required to do.
Team higher-ups have also run into troubles with unvaccinated players. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay relayed his thoughts on newly-acquired quarterback Carson Wentz, who has declined the vaccination despite his long history of injuries.
“There’s been difficulties, and it also makes it difficult if you’re not vaccinated because it’s harder to depend on someone if they’re not vaccinated.”
The forecast for a continued decline in ratings, as well as the complete circus that has evolved from individual beliefs regarding COVID-19 treatment that could have forced politically-driven fans to take sides or even protest games, seemed destined to hurt the NFL and major broadcasters such as CBS and FOX. Yet, remarkably, that’s as far as can possibly be from the case.
The average NFL viewership five weeks into the season has soared, reaching heights that haven’t been achieved in years. After seeing the opening week of the NFL resulting in 17.4 million viewers, a 7% increase from the opening week of 2020— which saw 16.3 million viewers— the league announced it is averaging 17.3 million viewers a game. Pro Football Focus notes that number is a 17% increase from this point last season.
Prime-time games have also seen impressive upticks. The Sept. 28 Monday Night Football matchup on ESPN between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles produced gigantic dividends, as detailed by The Futon Critic.
“ESPN’s presentation of the Monday Night Football matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys delivered an audience of 14,904,000 viewers, the franchise’s most-watched Week 3 presentation since 2012. The viewership is slightly up from the highly anticipated Kansas City-Baltimore showdown in 2020’s Week 3 and up 40% from 2019’s Week 3 game.”
Meanwhile, the Oct. 3 NBC Sunday Night matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots, boosted by Tom Brady’s historic return to Foxborough, earned 28.5 million viewers. That made it the second-highest rated SNF game of all-time.
Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, NFL chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp explained that there was never any evidence that the political unrest surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccines was a factor in ratings.
Rolapp also speculated that the games have offered “lighter” viewing compared to the heavier topics seen on the news and other programs, which has helped to boost overall viewership.
The NFL regaining many of the traits that harken back to a time of normalcy could also be playing a part in the improved viewing habits. Fans returning to the stadiums after being heavily restricted or forbidden all of last season has done wonders, as former CBS Sports vice president of programming Jay Rosenstein told CNN.
“As television executives, we always talk about where’s the best scene? What venue provides the most enthusiasm and excitement and passion and all of that. And that’s what you get from stands being full again.”
Some networks have also been playing around with new, innovative methods of shaking up how the game is viewed. ESPN introduced the “Manningcast,” an alternate broadcasting of MNF on ESPN2 that is hosted by Eli and Peyton Manning. The retired quarterbacks give analysis and play-by-play while also speaking to a variety of guests, which have included Charles Barkley, Rob Gronkowski, and Brett Favre.
The gimmick has clearly resonated highly with viewers, as The Philadelphia Inquirer points out the ratings doubled from 800,000 in the first week to 1.9 million by the third week.
The two are only contracted to announce 10 games in 2021, but perhaps the number of Manningcasts will rise in future seasons if they continue to draw in watchers thanks to their unique perspectives and hilarious un-scripted moments. It could also entice other networks to develop their own spins on games.
It remains to be seen whether or not the NFL will be able to keep up this positive trend over the full season, especially with the NBA and NHL returning to their normal season schedules. Regardless, fans can take solace in the fact that their favorite sports league has taken one giant step forward while providing hours worth of Sunday entertainment.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.