Just two seasons ago the NFL — the biggest ratings powerhouse on TV — found itself in a media maelstrom. The league was dealing with flagging ratings and strident criticism from President Donald Trump. But that now seems long ago with the NFL notching big ratings for the second season in a row.
The league's TV viewership for the 2019 season was up roughly 5% overall from the year prior, bringing in about 16.5 million viewers with the league's TV partners, Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN, all benefiting from ratings increases.
This makes 2019 the most watched NFL season in three years. It also keeps up the ratings momentum from the 2018 season, which had increased viewership over the year prior.
In short, the NFL completely dominated TV last year. The league accounted for 47 of the top 50 most-watched shows on TV this season, including the entire top 10. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" averaged 20 million viewers and is on pace to be TV's No. 1 show in prime time for the ninth consecutive year, according to the network.
The NFL was able to bring in big viewership this season thanks to the parity among teams big and small, said Jay Rosenstein, an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch Institute for Global Sport and a former VP of programming at CBS Sports.
"What stood out for me was that in a down year for the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, two of the league's most popular franchises, the NFL was able to find other stories and other teams for the casual fan to root for, even in smaller markets," he said. "I mean the Green Bay Packers are in a very small market, but they're a national team."
It also helped that star players mostly avoided major injuries and this season has had interesting games, Rosenstein added. The "NFL 100" — the league's season-long 100th anniversary celebration — also led to more exposure for the league.
"I think the NFL has a mythology now that transcends simply just watching games on television," Rosenstein said. "There's so many other elements that have an impact on viewership like fantasy football and to a limited extent, legalized gambling."
And the NFL's ratings victories could continue.
The league is now heading into the playoffs with popular teams such as the Packers, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers all in contention. There are also teams like the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs that have young and exciting stars such as quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Pat Mahomes.