The NFL scored a strong TV performance in Week 1, with ESPN’s Monday Night Football posting a double-digit rating increase. But there was also a new factor driving ratings, say TV insiders. Namely, the increasing legalization of sports betting across the U.S.
After the formerly impregnable NFL suffered consecutive ratings drops during the 2016-2017 seasons, tracking the NFL’s weekly TV performance became something of a media parlor game. Given the solid league’s performance in Week 1 of the 2019 season, those stories might be a thing of the past.
ESPN’s annual Monday Night double-header, for example, drew a combined 8.6 overnight rating, up 19% over last year.
The New Orleans Saints’ thrilling 30-28 win over the Houston Texans in the 7:15 p.m. ET slot averaged 13.2 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN Deportes, up 25% from the year before.
The Oakland Raiders’ 24-16 win over the Denver Broncos in the later 10: 30-time slot also performed well, averaging 10.7 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN Deportes, up nine percent from the previous year.
It was an auspicious start for ESPN’s new Monday Night Football announcing crew of Booger McFarland, Joe Tessitore and Lisa Salters. Especially considering the withering criticism leveled at former analyst Jason Witten last season.
“We are very pleased with the launch of Monday Night Football’s 50th season. The doubleheader featured two compelling matchups that delivered strong ratings and the most thrilling finish of the kickoff weekend,” stated Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “We are optimistic that this momentum will continue this week with Browns-Jets in the NFL 100 game – a rematch of the first Monday night game from 1970.”
Multiple factors impact NFL TV ratings: the drawing power of the teams involved, whether the game is competitive, what percentage of the country gets the telecast. But after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the federal ban on sports betting, 13 U.S. states, and counting, now book legal sports wagers.
Sports media insiders are not shy about saying the growing number of sports bettors with money on the games goosed the NFL’s TV numbers in Week 1.
“I think the legalization of sports gambling is a primary reason for the strong opening weekend,” said media consultant Brad Adgate, who previously directed the research department at Horizon Media. “There are two ways to increase Nielsen ratings; one is to get more viewers, the other is to have the viewers watch longer. With gambling, I think more viewers watched longer to see if the games had covered the spread.”
You could argue sports bettors are the most rabid NFL viewers of all. They don’t just root for their favorite team. They care about the point spread, the over/under and, of course, their fantasy team. They’ll watch three straight games on Sunday to see if their players scored. When other bored TV viewers turn off a blowout, they hang in there until the bitter end.
Bob Dorfman, creative director at Baker Street Advertising, agreed sports betting “definitely” helped TV numbers this week.
“It’s surely not because the game itself has gotten better. In fact, it’s getting worse: concussions, questionable officiating, season-ending injuries to stars, over-scheduling, over-legislating, social issues,” Dorfman said. “But gambling and fantasy leagues manage to hold everyone’s attention, keeping the games watchable and the ratings strong.”
To be fair, there were plenty of other factors driving the NFL’s Week 1 TV performance.
Expectations were off the charts for Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs and Baker Mayfield’s Cleveland Browns. The fan bases for big-market teams like the New York Giants, New York Jets and the Chicago Bears came into kickoff weekend with high hopes.
The Colin Kaepernick-inspired player protests that divided fans and players in 2016-2017 have largely disappeared. Sports fans were fascinated by the NBA-like soap opera surrounding Antonio Brown’s journey from the Oakland Raiders to New England Patriots.
Final TV numbers are not in yet. But consider what we know from Week 1:
— NBC Sports’ two-game prime time kickoff slate of Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears Thursday night and New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday Night averaged 22.7 million viewers, up 8% from the network’s first two games last year. It was the first time since 2015 that both of NBC’s kickoff games posted year-over-year increases. Patriots-Steelers was also NBC’s most-streamed Sunday regular-season game ever, with fans consuming 90.4 million live stream minutes on 3 million unique devices.
— Despite the lopsided 35-17 score, Fox Sports’ telecast of the Dallas Cowboys Sunday afternoon thumping of the Giants still drew a whopping 15.9 overnight rating, up 3% over last year’s comparable telecast. With America’s Team still unsurpassed as the league’s No. 1 TV attraction, Sunday’s Cowboys vs. Giants is shaping up to be Fox’s most-watched telecast since the NFC Championship Game.
— TV viewers love a nail-biter like Saints vs Texans. But no matter the hype, many viewers still change the channel on a blowout. CBS Sports, for instance, averaged a 10.2 overnight for two non-competitive games: the Browns’ 43-13 home loss to the Tennessee Titans and the Chiefs’ 40-26 win over the Jaguars.
That was down 4% from last year but up 19% from 2017, according to Sports Media Watch.