On television, there has been nothing more popular than live NFL games. In the 2021 regular season, the six NFL packages all reported ratings increase from 2020. In addition, every postseason game reported notable audience growth when compared to the corresponding game from the previous season.
In 2021, the ratings of NFL games accounted for 75 of the 100 most watched telecasts. By comparison, no MLB or NBA games made the list including any telecasts from the World Series or NBA Finals. During the regular season, covering the last four months of the year, NFL games accounted for 91 of the 100 highest rated telecasts.
This audience growth bodes well for heading into Super Bowl LVI on February 13. The television audience from Super Bowl XLIV (2010) through Super Bowl LII (2018) had all averaged 100+ million viewers. However, two of the last three Super Bowls averaged fewer than 100 million viewers. Last year’s TV audience of 91.6 million was the lowest average audience since Super Bowl XL in 2006. Even when the audience from streaming platforms is added at 5.7 million, the average audience fell below 100 million viewers.
Regular Season: With an additional week added to the regular season, NFL games still remained strong, averaging 17.1 million viewers, across television and digital. This comes at a time, when primetime programs are averaging five million viewers each night and ratings of live event programs such as the Oscars have been sinking.
Furthermore, with more games being streamed, NFL games on Peacock, Paramount+ and ESPN+ totaled 370 billion minutes, a year-over-year increase of 18%. Despite a more fragmented video landscape the audience delivery for NFL regular season games was the highest in six seasons and a 10% increase from 2020.
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Average Audience Regular Season
NFL Games (in millions)
Year-over-year ratings were up across all NFL packages. ESPN’s Monday Night Football had its best season in more than a decade, averaging 14.2 million viewers, a year-over-year increase of 16%. On MNF ESPN2 introduced an alternative “ManningCast” hosted by retired two-time winning Super Bowl quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. The nine ManningCasts averaged 1.6 million viewers.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football averaged 18.5 million viewers, an 11% increase from 2020. SNF is on pace to become the top-rated primetime television program for an unprecedented 11 consecutive seasons.
In its last season on Fox, Thursday Night Football averaged 16.4 million, an increase of 16% from 2020, these games were also simulcast on the NFL Network and Amazon Prime Video. The audience was the highest for TNF since 2015 when the games aired on CBS and the NFL Network. Next year Amazon Prime Video will be the exclusive source for Thursday Night Football.
Looking at Sunday afternoon, early Fox games averaged 18.6 million viewers, an increase of 2% from 2020. The late Sunday national games on Fox averaged 23.1 million viewers, making it the most watched television program for 14 consecutive years. The early Sunday games on CBS averaged 18 million viewers up 9% from 2020. The late Sunday CBS national game averaged 21.6 million.
Among the reasons cited for the ratings rebound were close games, the NFL reported that 64% of all regular season games were within one score in the fourth quarter. Another factor was that 2021 was a non-political year allowing for viewers to focus on football instead of a raucous election. Also, NFL fans had returned to the stadiums and fewer games had been rescheduled because of Covid.
Wild Card Round (6 Games): For the second straight year wild card weekend consisted of six games. There was however, one change; the early Saturday game was moved to Monday night. There has been a package of Monday night NFL games since 1970, but this was the first time a postseason game was played on that evening.
A majority of the six wild card games were blow outs. The average point differential in the games were more than two touchdowns. Nonetheless, NFL ratings growth continued, wild card weekend averaged 30.5 million TV and streaming viewers, a year-over-year difference of +21%. These games were the most watched TV programs since Super Bowl LV last February.
CBS: Not coincidentally, the top-rated game went down to the final minute. The late Sunday afternoon (San Francisco over Dallas) on CBS and Nickelodeon averaged 41.5 million, peaking at over 50 million viewers at the end of the game. It was the most watched wild card game in seven years and a 35% increase from last year’s comparable game. The CBS game on Saturday night, resulting in Buffalo easily beating New England. The contest averaged 26.4 million viewers, a 23% increase from last year’s corresponding game.
NBC: The first of two games televised on NBC aired on late Saturday afternoon with Cincinnati defeating Las Vegas. The game averaged 27.7 million viewers, an increase of 15% from the last year’s game in the same time period. NBC’s Sunday night game had Kansas City easy victory over Pittsburgh. The game averaged 28.9 million viewers, an increase from last year’s Sunday Night contest by 17%.
Fox: The lone Fox game on wild card weekend featured the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay beating Philadelphia. Played on the early Sunday afternoon, the game averaged 30.4 million viewers, +23% from the comparable game of 2021.
ESPN: The Monday night game had the Los Angeles Rams defeat Arizona. The contest aired on ESPN/ABC and was also on ESPN2’s “ManningCast”. The total audience averaged 23.2 million viewers, making it the most watched MNF game since the cable network replaced ABC in 2006.
Divisional Round (4 Games): In a marked contrast to wild card weekend, all four divisional round games were nail biters. The first three games were all decided by the visiting team kicking a game-winning field goal with no time left. The fourth game wound up in overtime. The four games were referred to by many as the most exciting weekend in NFL history. Also, the top seeded teams in both conferences (Tennessee and Green Bay) were eliminated despite having a bye week for wild card weekend and home field advantage. Overall, the four division round games averaged 37.1 million viewers, an increase of 21% from last season. The NFL also said year-over-year digital viewing grew by 20%.
CBS: CBS was the only network to televise two divisional round games. The Sunday primetime game, an exciting shootout between Kansas City and Buffalo (won by Kansas City in overtime), averaged 42.7 million viewers. This wound up being the most watched divisional round game in five years and an increase of 20% from last year’s corresponding game. The other CBS game on Saturday afternoon (Cincinnati over Tennessee) averaged 30.8 million viewers, a 16% jump from last year’s comparable contest.
NBC: The lone NBC game (the network will also televise Super Bowl LVI on February 13) had the Los Angeles Rams defeat Super Bowl LV champion Tampa Bay. The Sunday afternoon contest averaged 38.1 million viewers, +11% compared to last year’s corresponding matchup.
Fox: The only Fox game that weekend had San Francisco defeat Green Bay. The Saturday primetime game averaged 36.9 million viewers, +41% when compared to 2021.
Conference Championships (2 Games): Close contests continued for the following week with the two conference championships. Both games featured come from behind victories that were decided by a field goal. Historically, these two conference championship games rank as the second and third highest rated programs after the Super Bowl, it should be no different in 2022.
In the early AFC championship game, the #4 seed, Cincinnati defeated defending AFC champion and #2 seed Kansas City in overtime. Cincinnati is now 3-0 in conference championship games, overcoming an 18-point deficit to advance to Super Bowl LVI. The game aired on CBS and averaged 47.6 million viewers, the most watched early championship game in six years. The game peaked at 60.99 million viewers.
The late NFC championship was decided in the final two minutes when the #4 seed Los Angeles Rams defeated division rival and #6 seed San Francisco. Los Angeles scored 13 unanswered points in the final quarter to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI. The late game on Fox averaged 50.4 million viewers across Fox, Fox Deportes and streaming platforms. The last time an NFC conference championship game averaged over 50 million viewers was in 2014. Toward the end of the game, the audience reached a high-water mark of 55.2 million viewers.
With the huge ratings disparity on display between NFL games and other programs, the four networks had little choice but to collectively pony up $9 billion each season to carry NFL games. The new agreement starts with the 2023 season and runs through 2033 and is an 80% increase from the previous television agreement. In addition, Amazon will pay the NFL $1 billion a year for Thursday Night starting in 2022.
The new contract comes at a time with the changing of the guard among NFL quarterbacks. With Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady retiring and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers contemplating his future, the NFL has a new crop of exciting quarterbacks that should play throughout the length of the next TV contract. In the playoffs alone, viewers could watch former MVP Patrick Mahomes, Jr. of Kansas City, Joe Burrow of Cincinnati, Josh Allen of Buffalo, Mac Jones of New England and Arizona’s Kyler Murray. In addition, there is former MVP Lamar Jackson of Baltimore and Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers, both were selected for the AFC Pro Bowl. Of these seven quarterbacks, Mahomes is the oldest at age 26.