NFL TV ratings slipped by 2% in 2022, but there’s no doubting the league’s strength on TV and in streaming.
Don’t get it twisted: the NFL is still the hottest show on TV.
That doesn’t change the reality that the league’s accumulated viewership across CBS, FOX, NBC, ESPN, and Amazon took a 2% dip in 2022. Seeing NFL TV ratings drop could be a head-scratcher for those not used to ever seeing the NFL falter when it comes to popularity, but one culprit appears to be in its foray into the streaming world via Prime Video‘s Thursday Night Football, where numbers didn’t meet projected figures.
Is it surprising? Sure. Is there any reason to be worried? Nah.
The product was incredible this season. Every game mattered and every team seemingly had a chance. Look no further than the Jaguars, who went from 3-7 to 9-8 with a Wild Card game against the Chargers on Saturday. That leads us to the parity effect — out of 271 regular season games this season, 45% were decided by six points or fewer, which is the most since 2002. As reports indicate, that’s nearly seven games per week decided by a touchdown or less, and a record-tying 25 teams with a regular season winning percentage better than .400.
The league set all sorts of records this year and it’s already established itself as the king of TV. The NFL occupied 82 of the 100 most-watched TV shows in ’22, and more than tripled the NBA on Christmas Day’s viewership, despite playing only three games. FOX’s America’s Game of the Week was the most-watched window on TV for the 14th straight year. And the Super Bowl always serves as a dagger, owning 30 of the 32 most-watched broadcasts in television history — the M*A*S*H series finale in 1983 and the 2016 Presidential Debates are the only other entries on the list.
So how did each individual network fare after the NFL signed a $110 billion media rights bill? Let’s take a look.
Here’s why the overall numbers dropped. Prime Video fell short of its projections, as Nielsen finalized Amazon’s average TNF viewership at 9.6 million people, compared to preseason projections of 11.3 million. Compare that to last season, when TNF garnered 13.4 million viewers, and it’s a 28% drop year-over-year.
While internal metrics projected a higher figure, it’s worth noting that for many, this is a relatively new means of watching sports. The idea of streaming is a foreign concept among some in older demographics, and as streaming becomes normalized, especially for sports, this trend should shift.
Amazon has already nabbed the younger audience, which is a great sell to advertisers — Amazon’s average viewership among those aged 18-34 was 2.1 million, an 11% increase from last season. Furthermore, the median age among TNF viewers this past season was 47, which is seven years younger than the average age of viewers on linear networks.
Short-term, it hurt the overall viewership numbers. Long-term, it’s going to pay off — especially as the streaming giant adds more sports content. Don’t forget: Prime Video splurged to poach Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit from their respective networks.
CBS had its best season since 2015 (19.1M), luring an average 18.5 million viewers in 2022.
- The 18.5 million figure is a 3% increase from last season.
- CBS’s 10 Sunday afternoon national windows averaged 23.5 million viewers — up from 21.6 million last season.
- Their 22.7 million from Pats-Bills in Week 18 was their best finale in 11 years.
Unlike Prime Video and ESPN, CBS didn’t make any splashy hires in the booth. Still, “The NFL Today” pregame show averaged 3.3 million viewers, which is the program’s best figure in six years.
FOX averaged 19.42 million viewers this season, the network’s highest figure since 2016, when it brought in 19.43 million.
- The network saw a 4% increase from last season.
- Sunday national windows — known as “America’s Game of the Week — brought in 24.1 million viewers, the 14th straight year in which it was the best average for any TV program.
- “FOX NFL Kickoff” (11am-12pm ET): 1.3 million viewers, its best since 2019 and up 9% from 1.2 million last year.
- “FOX NFL Sunday” (12pm-1pm): 4.5 million viewers, also its best full season since 2019.
FOX pays roughly $2.025 billion per year in the new media rights deal. It lost Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN, but Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen did just fine taking their respective roles. Will Tom Brady be part of that booth next year?
NBC Sunday Night Football
NBC led all networks with 19.9 million viewers for Sunday Night Football, a 3% uptick from the 2021 season and its highest figure since nabbing 20 million in 2019.
- For a 12th-straight TV season, NBC leads all primetime TV shows in viewership.
- Remember that parity thing we mentioned? NBC recorded an all-time high 13 one-score games.
- The night program finished as TV’s No.1 primetime show in 16 of 18 weeks for a second straight year.
Pregame and postgame show “Football Night in America” averaged 7.24 million views — a 1% increase from the 7.19 they brought in last season. With Michaels leaving for Prime Video, NBC took Mike Tirico out of the studio and into the play-by-play chair, alongside color commentator Chris Collinsworth.
ESPN brought in an average of 13.4 million viewers this season, which is down from last season, but the third-best average since 2010. The network saw a 5% dip from 2021 with a number of factors coming into play here.
- They played a doubleheader during Week 2, which took audience numbers from both games.
- Without Week 2, the average would’ve been 13.8 million — a 2.3% decrease versus 5%.
- ESPN did not capitalize on perhaps its biggest game of the season (Bills-Bengals) after Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field.
A couple things worth noting here: Firstly, ESPN should probably never play two games at the same time. Just a thought. Secondly, Nielsen said the suspended Bills-Bengals game had an average of 23.78 million viewers, which would’ve been the most-watched MNF broadcast since it moved over to ESPN in 2006. As mentioned, the game did not count toward its viewership numbers.
And finally, there’s certainly an allure to ESPN with how it operated this past year. ManningCast started a new trend for alternate telecasts, and the network spent $167.5 million on analysts Buck and Aikman, who were both a breath of fresh air in terms of credibility and familiarity.
Whether you like it or not, the NFL is the King of TV. Now, it’s their job to get more folks to adjust with the times and stream.
Prime Video aired just 14 games this season and only four games featured matchups between two playoff teams. And even with that hiccup, their debut broadcast in Week 2 generated record numbers of new Prime signups. Next year, they’ll get a special Black Friday game — yet another innovative strategy on the NFL business side.
The decrease in TNF viewers and MNF viewers were nearly a direct result of experimenting with streaming and airing two games at once. Otherwise, get ready for more records as the league builds a three-week playoff cake topped with the Super Bowl cherry on Feb. 12.
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