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CBS Sports Chairman: NFL TV Ratings Are Speeding ‘Freight Train’

  • NFL regular-season game audiences rose 10% to 17.1 million viewers last year.
  • ‘There’s nothing like the NFL,’ says CBS Sports boss Sean McManus.
Sean McManus
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Throughout the TV business, there’s a lot of doom and gloom about TV ratings for news and entertainment falling off a cliff. But networks that broadcast live NFL games are all smiles heading into the new 2022 season.

The NFL has emerged as the most popular property in all of entertainment, blowing away dramas, reality shows, and sitcoms, as well as other leagues. 

  • NFL regular-season game telecasts averaged 17.1 million viewers during the 2021 season. 
  • That was up 10% from the year before — and the highest regular-season average since 2015; NFL games ranked in 48 of the top 50 telecasts.
  • Fans consumed 370 billion total minutes, up 18%, and the highest figure in six years.
  • NBC’s coverage of Super Bowl LVI drew over 208 million viewers, or two-thirds of the U.S. population.

During a CBS Sports press call previewing this season’s coverage, chairman Sean McManus said he expects another big year ratings-wise for the 300-pound gorilla of sports.  

“The fanbase gets more and more rabid every year. And the storylines get more intriguing every year,” McManus said. “So it’s a freight train going down the tracks. It’s just gaining speed, and gaining momentum, every single year.

The NFL’s TV partners CBS, NBC Sports, Fox Sports, ESPN, and Amazon Prime Video pay a premium for access to the entertainment equivalent of beachfront property. Last year, these companies signed media deals worth $110 billion over 11 years — nearly double the size of previous contracts. 

In return, networks get a magnet for viewers, advertisers, and affiliates that serves as the financial linchpin of their operations. 

Here are some reasons why the NFL is King, according to McManus:

Non-stop media coverage: The NFL gets far more media coverage than MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS, or other pro sports. Add in the non-stop promotion by networks like ESPN and NFL Network, the Shield is omnipresent. 

Over the past couple of years, NFL TV networks have agreed to $1 billion in new contracts to secure top game announcers like Tony Romo and Jim Nantz of CBS, Troy Aikman and Joe Buck of ESPN and Tom Brady of Fox. 

“There’s nothing like the NFL. There’s a story about the NFL 365 days a year,” McManus said.

Year-round sport: There is no offseason any more, noted McManus. Whether it’s the NFL Draft, NFL Combine, or daily news out of summer training camps, the NFL is a 24/7, 365-day obsession. 

Round 1 of the 2022 NFL Draft on April 28 drew a combined average viewership of 10 million across ABC, ESPN, and NFL Network. “Everybody wants to follow it,” McManus said.

Sudden death: Unlike most sports, NFL Playoff games are single elimination. “Every game is important. Every playoff game is a win-or-go-home game unlike the other sports, which are  best-of-five or best-of-seven,” McManus noted. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has reigned as the most-watched TV show in prime time for a record 11 straight years. Said McManus: “Every game during the regular season is important because there’s only 17 of them.”

The same dynamics that make the NFL a juggernaut also apply to College Football. The difference is the NFL is far better managed and marketed than the decentralized sport of college football. It’s no surprise the Big Ten Conference is following the NFL’s blueprint and trying to become the “NFL of college conferences.”

As Fox Sports’ Mike Mulvihill noted on Twitter: “TV usage keeps going down, football viewing keeps going up. Receding tide that doesn’t lower every boat.”

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