The NFL’s TV viewership increased by an average of 5 percent per game this season. But it would be inaccurate to say that more people watched the NFL in 2018 than in 2017.
In fact, fewer people watched football in 2018. But ratings increased because those who did watch the NFL watched more of it.
Michael Mulvihill, executive V.P. for research at FOX Sports, points out that the NFL’s “reach” was actually down this season: In 2018 there were 184.2 million people who watched an NFL game at some points, while in 2017 there were 189.2 million people who watched an NFL game.
But the overall viewership was up because the average fan who watched any football at all watched one more game (17.1 games in 2018 compared to 16.2 games in 2017), and the average viewer of a game stayed tuned in for about three minutes longer this season than last season.
It seems likely that the decline in reach is driven by cord cutters: More and more people watch TV only through Netflix, Hulu and other outlets that don’t have NFL games, and those people don’t see any football at all. In the past, when almost everyone had a TV that could get the broadcast channels, some people who weren’t NFL fans would end up watching a game just because they were bored and flipping through the channels on a lazy Sunday. Now those same people check what’s available on Netflix and never come across an NFL game.
Despite that issue — which is an issue that affects all of television, not just the NFL — the league was able to increase its ratings because fans were more engaged with the product. Subjectively, the quality of play seemed to be up this year, and that’s reflected in the fact that fans were watching more games, and more likely to watch a game until the end instead of turning off a boring game at halftime.
The issue with fewer people watching is a real one, and one the NFL wants to get its arms around. One of the reasons the league made a deal with Amazon to simulcast the Thursday night games that also air on FOX and NFL Network is that it wants to experiment with attracting those fans who don’t have a cable TV subscription. The league still has a lot of work to do on that front.
But as long as the football is good, the fans will watch. This year the football was good, and so were the ratings.