In a down economy, NFL viewership is up
Watching games on TV replaces more costly leisure activities for consumers

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

When this NFL season began with some franchises struggling to sell tickets, there were concerns about the impact that the uncertain U.S. economy would have on the nation's most prosperous sport.

While those concerns have turned out to be justified in a few NFL cities and unfounded in others, there has been an unforeseen development: The NFL's television ratings are soaring this season, and some analysts say it appears to be the result of consumers cutting back on other, more costly leisure activities in favor of watching pro football on TV.

"I think there's only one answer and that is the NFL and television are actually getting the so-called 'benefit' of the recession," said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs a television consulting firm, Pilson Communications. "I think people are making conscious decisions that their entertainment dollars are best spent watching NFL games free on their television sets on Sunday afternoon and Sunday night and Monday night."

TV ratings for NFL games this season are up 15 percent from last season and are at a 20-year high for this point in a season; average television viewership is 17.2 million per game, according to the league. Through Sunday, 11 of the 12 most-watched sporting events since the Super Bowl in February were NFL games. Even with the Washington Redskins' struggles, all seven of their games have been the highest-rated shows in the D.C. area in the weeks in which they aired.

Ratings for NFL games this season are up 20 percent on NBC, 19 percent on Fox, 4 percent on CBS and 18 percent on ESPN, according to the league. Last Sunday's Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers game on Fox drew 29.8 million viewers and was the highest-rated telecast on any network since the Academy Awards in February.

"It's been amazing to me," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said at the NFL owners' meeting in Boston last month. "One of the things you're concerned about coming into this economic environment is it's important that our partners do well. If you look at the ratings, they've been remarkable. . . . I think there's been a shift in the American culture, with people staying closer to home."

Paid attendance in the NFL's 32 cities was down a little more than 2 percent overall from a year ago through seven weeks of games, the most recent figures available. Sales of jerseys and other team merchandise are down about 2 percent, while the league's national sponsorships are up.

Pilson said the increase in TV ratings for NFL games is much greater than simply being a reflection of those fans who used to go to games now staying home and watching on television. The sizable boost in ratings shows that other viewers also are being drawn in, he said.

"We're seeing it in the baseball postseason [with World Series viewership up 42 percent from last year] as well," Pilson said by telephone last week. "But I think that's about teams and matchups and cities. . . . The NFL is such a premier property, such an attractive property."

Quarterback Brett Favre's success with the Vikings in his second comeback from retirement has been a compelling story line this season -- but not sufficiently compelling, Pilson said, to singlehandedly produce such a boost in ratings.

The NFL's rules-makers in recent years have tweaked the rules to help quarterbacks, believing that a wide-open style of play is attractive to fans and potential TV viewers. It has been a season of superb quarterback play. It's also been a season in which the parity for which the NFL usually is known has been skewed a bit, with a larger than usual number of non-competitive teams -- and therefore games.

But David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said the NFL has been fortunate from a ratings standpoint because those teams with the worst records this season mostly are in comparatively smaller TV markets such as St. Louis, Nashville and Kansas City.

"These numbers would not be where they are if big-market teams were not doing what they're doing, if there were not compelling story lines, if the broadcast elements weren't what they are," Carter said by telephone. "People aren't just sitting down and watching anything and everything on TV. The NFL is doing something right to keep these viewers engaged."

Carter said those "broadcast elements" include the proliferation of high-definition broadcasts that "make these games fantastic to watch." But he rejected the suggestion that the saturation of high-definition TVs in U.S. households is driving the NFL's ratings boost.

"I don't think people are saying, 'I spent X amount on this TV, so I'm going to sit down and watch it,' " Carter said.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the owners' meeting last month that "one of the theories" for the increased ratings is that they are a byproduct of the troubled economy and the resulting change in consumers' habits.

"Since we continue to be available on free television, our fans can gather around the television sets rather than pursuing other opportunities that are more costly," Goodell said. "They are now able to gather around with their friends and family and enjoy NFL football. I think that could be a contributing factor, clearly.

"I also think it has a lot to do with the quality of the games that we're having, the tremendous interest that's being created by all of the different media outlets and the focus on it. I've always said NFL football brings communities together and people together like nothing else. If we can give people an opportunity to get away from their daily troubles, that's a good thing for all of us involved with the NFL."

The NFL probably won't get a significant short-term revenue boost from this season's soaring TV ratings, with its network television contracts all running through the 2013 season after a series of extensions were completed in recent months. Those deals, including one with DirecTV for the league's "Sunday Ticket" satellite package running through the 2014 season, are worth close to $4 billion per year to the NFL in rights fees.

Is there a cautionary note for the NFL in all of this? Does the league have to be wary that fans will become so comfortable staying at home and watching on TV that filling stadiums will remain challenging, even when the economy improves? Carter said he doesn't see that as a potential problem.

"I think the fans who go to the games every week are a different market than those who are watching en masse" on television, Carter said. "In that regard, the NFL benefits from having a limited number of games. It's still special enough that people want to be there. If the NFL had 50 games a year, that hassle factor might come into play. But I think they're two different markets."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company