Even with empty stadiums, NFL still a ratings monster

A worker cleans seats in Arrowhead Stadium before an NFL football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Regular-season ratings for NFL games declined this season following two straight years of increases. But in a year that saw the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and a presidential election, the 7% decrease isn't as bad as the league and its broadcast partners feared before the season began.

Games averaged 15.6 million television and digital viewers, according to the league and Nielsen. The league averaged 16.5 million regular-season viewers last season after posting 5% gains in both 2018 and ’19.

Overall, the continued ratings strength of the NFL — even with most games played in empty or mostly empty stadiums — underscores the financial underpinnings of the league's decision to play a full season amid a pandemic in which more than 21.5 million Americans have been infected. The networks pay a combined $5.86 billion per season for the rights to broadcast NFL games, and they are rewarded with huge audiences and revenue from advertisers eager to reach viewers.

“The NFL is a ratings generator and leader throughout entertainment. It is so big and the audience is so committed, I think the only thing the networks worry about is the score (of the games) which determines how long people tune in,” said former CBS sports president Neal Pilson, who now runs his own sports television consulting company.

During the last presidential election year in 2016, NFL ratings were down 8%. However, that year they were down 14% at midseason before rallying. In 2020, the declines remained between 6% and 8% throughout the season.

It was the third straight election year in which ratings have gone down.

The NFL had 20 of the top 25 and 42 of top 50 top telecasts. Only two of the top 100 telecasts from the past year were not sports or news-related.

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