The NFL Dominates American Television, and Likely Always Will

  • The juggernaut will encroach on days traditionally dominated by rival leagues.
  • Frequent predictions over the last decade of football’s demise haven’t come true.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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It was only eight years ago that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted a greedy NFL would implode within a decade, quipping “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”

Just the opposite has happened. The more games the NFL adds, the bigger the appetite, and the more money it charges media partners for rights.

As CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said: “There’s nothing like the NFL. There’s a story about the NFL 365 days a year.

The NFL didn’t generate an estimated $18 billion in gross revenue last year by respecting boundaries or precedent — even its own. (The league now embraces sports betting and liquor sponsorships).

Next, the juggernaut that is The Shield is set to encroach on days and television windows traditionally dominated by rival leagues.

Key Media Moves

During its 103-year history, the NFL has made several savvy media decisions that helped turn it into one of the the most valuable properties in entertainment.

  • It made all of its games available on free, over-the-air broadcast TV in local markets — and stayed free even when it expanded to cable with “Sunday Night Football” on ESPN and TNT in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
  • It shifted its season-opening game to Thursday nights in 2002, creating a five-day “NFL Kickoff Weekend” that enriched networks and sponsors alike
  • It launched the NFL Network in 2003, adding coverage of everything from the Combine to training camps.
  • Then it launched two key new primetime franchises in 2006: “Sunday Night Football” on NBC and “Thursday Night Football” on NFL Network.

The marquee “Sunday Night Football” game enabled the league to introduce flexible scheduling, ensuring better late-season game matchups.

Yes, the Thursday night game has rightly been ripped by coaches, players, and networks, but it helped the NFL challenge its entertainment rivals in Hollywood for primetime dominance on another night previously dominated by sitcoms or dramas.

Record TV Audiences

Cuban was looking like a seer when the NFL’s TV audiences dropped 8% and 10%, respectively, during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Since then, the NFL’s already enormous TV numbers have headed north.

It’s no wonder the other leagues duck head-to-head competition. 

  • During the 2021 regular season, the average game audiences rose 10% to 17.1 million, the highest average in six years. 
  • Hungry NFL fans consumed 370 billion total minutes of content in 2021, up 18% from the year before. 
  • NFL games accounted for 48 of the year’s 50 most-watched telecasts.
  • NBC Sports’ “Sunday Night Football” has reigned as primetime’s No. 1 TV show for a record 11 straight years.

If you’re looking for a heat check: This summer, a preseason telecast between the Pittsburgh Stelers and Seattle Seahawks on NFL Network drew more viewers than a regular-season MLB game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox on Fox Sports.

The NFL’s business endgame: hit commissioner Roger Goodell’s goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027.

More Choices Than Ever

This season, the NFL will offer fans more media platforms to watch games than ever before. 

Thanks to the NFL’s combined $100 billion worth of media rights deals through 2033, NFL games will continue to dominate free TV. 

  • CBS will broadcast the AFC package, while Fox gets the NFC package, although more games will be “cross-flexed” between the two networks. 
  • NBC will continue to televise its blockbuster “Sunday Night Football” program. Sister Walt Disney Co. network ABC will simulcast six ESPN games – giving the league a clean sweep of all four broadcast networks.

The dominance extends to cable, too. 

  • Disney’s ESPN will trot out its strongest broadcast team in decades for “Monday Night Football,” with ex-Fox stars Troy Aikman and Joe Buck joining Lisa Salters. 
  • The NFL Network will telecast three international games, plus a Week 15 Saturday tripleheader and a Christmas Eve game. 

The league is also rapidly moving into the burgeoning space of alternative telecasts. The NFL’s media czar Brian Rolapp has greenlighted a growing number of them: 

  • Peyton and Eli Manning’s “ManningCast” of “Monday Night Football” on ESPN2. 
  • “Dude Perfect” and Andrea Kremer-Hannah Storm versions of “Thursday Night Football” on Amazon.
  • Another kids-focused game from CBS and Nickelodeon.

Then there’s streaming and satellite options.

  • Amazon will telecast 15 “Thursday Night Football” games on its Prime Video service.
  • DirecTV’s “Sunday Ticket” will continue to offer out-of-market games on Sunday afternoons.
  • Scott Hanson’s NFL RedZone will continue to offer live cut-ins to Sunday games.

On top of all that, the NFL+ app will offer everything from live local and primetime regular-season/postseason games on mobile phones and tablets to radio broadcasts and game film.

No Day Is Safe

The NBA has worked for decades to make Christmas Day a hoops tradition, while the NFL has long ruled Thanksgiving.

After this year’s Turkey Day tripleheader, the league is coming for Christmas weekend, and not just with 11 games on Christmas Eve and “Monday Night Football” on Dec. 26.

The NFL will air its first Christmas Day tripleheader, which means superstars like Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Donald will compete for eyeballs with LeBron James and Steph Curry — and with NFL games accounting for 75 of the top 100 telecasts in 2021, it’s not hard to predict which league will likely top the ratings.

In 2023, the league will also plant its flag on Black Friday for the first time. Amazon Prime Video, the league’s exclusive new “Thursday Night Football” partner, bid $70 million to $100 million for rights to the game, according to Peter King of NBC Sports.

Some NBA executives, as recently as March 2020, have even proposed shifting its season to a December-August schedule to avoid competing with the NFL. 

“If King Kong is at your door, you might go out the back door, rather than go out the front and engage in a hand-to-hand fight with King Kong,” said Atlanta Hawks chief executive officer Steve Koonin at the time.

Over its century-long history, the NFL has played only 24 Christmas Day games, including a doubleheader last year — and with the holiday falling on Saturday and Sunday in 2021 and 2022, the calendar favored the league.

With Christmas falling on a Monday in 2023, look for another tripleheader next year. It’s possible Christmas Day games could become an annual event — no matter what day of the week the holiday falls.

The Bulletproof Shield

The league’s resilience in the face of legal and PR disasters is unparalleled.

Bad headlines — and even books like “Pros and Cons” that highlighted violent crime committed by players in 1999 — fade quicker than a running back’s career after age 30. 

From Rae Carruth to Aaron Hernadez to Ray Rice, players have committed shocking crimes even as research has shown that crime rates among NFL players are lower than those of the general population.

The NFL’s initial response to Rice’s assault of his now-wife in 2014 was criticized, but ultimately the league altered its personal conduct policy to include a six-game ban for domestic violence, sexual assualt, and child abuse.

  • Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was the first player suspended under that changed policy in 2017. 
  • Deshaun Watson is the latest after the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed on a deal in August for an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine for the Cleveland Browns quarterback.

Nearly seven years removed from the release of the movie “Concussion,” even the CTE controversy has begun to fade.

And, after Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in protest, leading to a backlash and ratings dip, viewership rebounded three years later by 2019.

Then there are all the legal hits the NFL continues to absorb.

The league tends to deftly move past congressional scrutiny and courtroom challenges, even if it can be costly. This is a league that paid a record $790 million to settle the St. Louis lawsuit last November over the Rams’ move to Los Angeles. 

  • Washington Commanders and owner Dan Snyder is currently under investigation by the House Oversight Committee. There’s also another ongoing outside NFL investigation of the team.
  • Former Miami Dolphins head coach and current Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Brian Flores’ racial discimation lawsuit is ongoing. 
  • Former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden is also suing the NFL. 

Altogether, frequent predictions over the last decade of football’s demise haven’t come true and the NFL is still pulverizing competitors across sports and entertainment. 

Don’t count on that changing anytime soon.

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