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Media Circus: 2018 AFC, NFC Championships Pose as Major Test for NFL Viewership

It's no secret that the NFL has had declining viewership numbers this season, but the ratings from the 2018 AFC and NFC championships will provide big insight for the league regarding the size of its audience.

Next Sunday is going to be a fascinating day for the National Football League because it’s likely to provide significant insight into the health of the television viewership of the league.

As has been written in this column and countless other outlets, the NFL’s regular-season ratings overall were down about 9% versus its audience a year ago, the second consecutive year the league has seen a significant regular season drop. Plenty of outlets— including this one— have offered reported analysis as to why. Those stories will continue.

But what has always been taken for granted, an automatic rule of sorts, is that the Super Bowl and NFC and AFC Championship Games are *basically* immune to ratings issues.

Here are the viewership numbers for the last six NFL conference championship rounds:

Date: Jan. 22, 2017

Early game: Falcons-Packers (Fox): 46.3 million viewers

Late game: Patriots-Steelers (CBS): 48.0 million viewers

Average viewership: 46.903 million

Date: Jan. 24, 2016

Early game: Broncos-Patriots (CBS): 53.3 million viewers

Late game: Panthers-Cardinals (Fox) 45.7 million viewers

Average viewership: 49.700 million

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Date: Jan. 18 2015

Early game: Seahawks-Packers (Fox): 49.84 million viewers

Late game: Patriots-Colts (CBS): 42.14 million viewers

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Average viewership: 46.151 million

Date: Jan. 19, 2014

Early game: Broncos-Patriots (CBS): 51.3 million viewers

Late game: Seahawks-Niners (Fox): 55.9 million viewers

Average viewership: 53.697 million

Date: Jan. 20, 2013

Early game: Niners-Falcons (Fox): 42.0 million viewers

Late game: Ravens-Patriots (CBS): 47.1 million viewers

Average viewership: 44.824 million

Date: Jan. 22, 2012

Early game: Patriots-Ravens (CBS): 48.7 million viewers

Late game: Giants-Niners (Fox): 57.6 million

Average viewership: 53.976 million

*Margin of victory will always have an impact on viewership.

The viewership numbers above were no doubt impacted by the margin of victory and the teams playing (e.g. the big-market Giants were part of the most-watched conference championship game since 2012). But what seems clear is that a combined average audience of 44 million viewers represents the floor for the conference championship games in this era no matter the teams and margin of victory. That is the number I’ll be watching for in Sunday’s games. If the combined viewership is below that, it will tell you how deep the viewership issues are. If it’s above that, we can continue a longer ratings conversation.

One interesting twist: The Jaguars. Jacksonville is the smallest AFC TV market (No. 42, according to the latest estimated Designated Market Area by Nielsen) to play in the conference championship since 1999 when the same Jaguars made it. That’s countered slightly by New England’s appearance in the game—the Patriots have drawn more than 47 million in championship games this decade outside of the Patriots-Colts game in 2015, which was a 45-7 rout. Boston is also the No. 9 TV market in the country. I think how the Jaguars beat the Steelers—putting up 45 points in Pittsburgh—will bring more viewers early than expected, but their presence is truly an X-factor for viewership this deep in the postseason. The AFC Championship is the early game (3:05 p.m. ET) this year by basis of the rotation, so CBS will obviously be hoping for a close game late.

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The NFC matchup between Philadelphia and Minnesota has some very good things going for it viewership-wise including market size (Philadelphia is No. 4 and Minneapolis-St. Paul is No. 10), a pair of historic NFL franchises that have not appeared in a Super Bowl since 2005 (Eagles) and 1977 (Vikings) and the magic dust from Minnesota’s amazing win over New Orleans. The kickoff time (6:40 p.m.) also works out well for the NFL given the Eagles-Vikings matchup (on paper) looks to be the higher viewership play—you would always want that in the late window. What the game does not have is household names at quarterbacks. The NFL has long marketed its sport through quarterback matchups (Bradshaw vs. Staubach; Manning vs. Brady, etc.) and Nick Foles vs. Case Keenum—no matter how great Keenum has been this year—is a hard sell for casual fans who watch the postseason only. There could be some tune-in for those viewers curious about watching a team (Minnesota) advance to the first Super Bowl in a home city (Minneapolis), especially after the final play of Vikings-Saints.

Sports Business Journal assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported this week that NFL Wild Card weekend had its lowest average viewership since 2008. The four games last weekend across ABC/ESPN, NBC, CBS and Fox averaged 25.3 million viewers, down from last year’s 30.3 million viewers. (Last year’s Wild Card round did much bigger TV draws and had markets including the Giants, Packers, Dolphins. Seahawks and Raiders).

The final divisional round viewership numbers will be out Tuesday and I’d bet the round is collectively down from 2017, especially since Packers-Cowboys was the late Sunday game last year, and that drew 48.5 million viewers. (Editors note: On Monday Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily reported that the divisional round had its lowest overnight rating in at least a decade.)

THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Best-selling author James Patterson has a new book coming out on the late NFL player Aaron Hernandez titled All-American Murder. The book debuts Jan. 22 and as part of his reporting, Patterson teamed up with CBS’s 48 Hours for a one-hour special that will air Saturday, Jan. 20 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. Below, a Q&A with the author on what interested him about Hernandez.

Why was this a compelling story for you?

There are a lot of reasons this story was compelling to me. One, growing up I lived outside of Boston for several years, so I am a Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics fan. As a writer, what struck me most about Aaron Hernandez is his complexity, and all of the unexpected twists and turns that took place in his life story right up until his death.  The sheer tragedy of it all—for him and for the families of those he murdered. His stunning fall from grace. The brain damage and CTE angle. And really, the scope of the true crime story—not one, but two trials, and an investigation spanning 50 police departments.

What is the central question that interested you most involving Aaron Hernandez?

It’s a one word answer: Why? This guy seemed to have so much going for him—he was a natural athlete, had a very successful football career, a $40M contract and a family.

How did that question resolve itself (or not) after your reporting?

I think it resolved itself somewhat. An accurate summation is that you take a psychopathic personality, hit him in the head several thousand times, add PCP and an outlandish amount of weed, and you probably have a tragedy on your hands.

What kind of access or cooperation did you get, if any, from the New England Patriots?

We didn’t get any cooperation from the Patriots or the NFL. We tried, but didn’t even get a response. I wasn’t out to hold anyone at fault, certainly not the Patriots or the NFL, but no one would talk to us.

1a. Deadspin editor Tim Burke has long had a reputation of being a go-to source when it comes to procuring video involving a sports story of relevance. On Saturday at 1:31 p.m. ET, Burke sent out video of a Premier League match between Tottenham and Everton that was truly terrifying video for those watching in Hawaii—an emergency alert went out to viewers saying, “The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

How did Burke procure the video that quickly? Said Burke: “I use a cloud service to record every local major network affiliate in the country, the moment I saw @nycsouthpaw's tweet of the screenshot from his phone, I went to see if an accompanying EAS alert went out, since the system is supposed to be in sync. I saw no EAS alert, so discounted it as a hack. Then, while closing the window, noticed the EAS alert DID happen on three channels in Honolulu, just several minutes after the phone alert did.”

An NBC Sports spokesperson said the alert was on the NBC affiliate in Hawaii and the affiliate addressed the false alarm and came back later with an update.

1b. The legendary sports broadcaster Keith Jackson passed away Friday evening at the age of 89. Jackson was most famous for his 40 years of calling college football, but he also called Major League Baseball, NBA and 10 Olympic Games. Most forget that he was the first play-by-play man on Monday Night Football, sitting beside Howard Cosell and Don Meredith when the show made its debut in 1970. He retired after the 2006 Rose Bowl. Some pieces of note on Jackson:

• This 1987 SIprofile of Jackson by William Taafe 

SI’s Andy Staples

• Richard Sandomir’s 1998 profile of Jackson 

1c. A labor dispute between the Golf Channel and union workers for video and audio production at Golf Channel events became public Sunday when workers walked out on Golf Channels events over stalled negotiations on a new contract. The news was first reported by No Laying up. A Golf Channel spokesperson on Sunday issued a statement: “Golf Channel has been working on negotiating an agreement for nine months with a union that represents our live tournament technicians. Those efforts have not yet yielded a resolution, and we look forward to reaching a mutually agreeable contract.  However, some technicians have chosen to walk off the job today. We have contingency plans in place, and will continue to deliver coverage. Thank you to our viewers for their patience.”

2. Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine, the public face of that network, raved about Mark Silverman when SI spoke with Revsine on Friday. Silverman is the BTN President who last week was named president of national networks at Fox Sports. In his new role, Silverman will relocate to Los Angeles and oversee all programming, production, marketing, and digital for Fox, FS1 and FS2 live events and studio shows. He will also retain his current responsibilities at BTN. He starts his new job on January 16.

Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand said that Silverman will have a bigger role than Jamie Horowitz, who was fired by Fox Sports in July. Revsine said Fox Sports employees should expect Silverman as a collaborator and someone open to many ideas. 

“He just a fabulous boss,” Revsine said. “I cannot state enough how much I like him personally and professionally. I would tell you the same thing on or off the record: His door is always open literally and metaphorically. You always feel like he is available. He doesn’t micromanage, he hires good people and lets them to their thing.

“I think Mark is really smart about how do you position your network or networks in the marketplace? Where is your competitive advantage? Where does your philosophy need to  be? He is a big-picture thinker. He won’t come in and say my way or the highway. He will listen to input from a lot of sides. And if he hears an idea that’s not his that he likes, he is a consensus builder who will go with that. Will he embrace debate or not embrace debate, I don’t know? But what I can tell you is he is really good about getting everyone on the same page. I can’t tell you how happy I am for him. It is so perfect that his talents have recognized and that he will have such a huge chance to make an impact on the sports scene.”

As for the debate-oriented philosophy that Horowitz brought to FS1, Eric Shanks, the Fox Sports President & COO, has said in previous interviews with Sports Illustrated that FS1 will continue with that philosophy.

2a. Dan Lovinger, an executive vice president of ad sales for NBC Sports, said the network will average more than $5 million for a 30-second spot for its Super Bowl coverage. Lovinger said there are still a handful of spots (fewer than 10) available for purchase—a standard practice for the networks that own Super Bowl rights is to hold inventory open for late buyers.

Lovinger said over the course of 22 days in February, they expect to deliver close to $1.4 billion in national ad sales for the Super Bowl, its pregame and postgame, and for the 18 days of the Winter Olympics.

2b.  Men’s Olympic hockey has always been one of the highlights of Winter Olympic coverage given the importance of the tournament. That is not the case next month given the absence of the NHL players. The women’s tournament will still be exceptional television.

Last week, NBC Sports announced its broadcasters for the tournament: John Walton is the lead play-by-play voice for the women’s hockey tournament, alongside analyst AJ Mleczko and reporter Leila Rahimi. Kenny Albert will serve as the main play-by-play announcer for the men’s draw with Gord Miller as an additional play-by-play announcer and Mike Milbury as an analyst. Pierre McGuire and Brian Boucher will serve as ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analysts. Kathryn Tappen will host studio coverage, with analysts Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones. Tessa Bonhomme will anchor studio coverage from NBC Sports Group’s International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn., alongside Anson Carter and Erika Lawler. Mike Emrick will call three NHL on NBC games stateside during the Olympics.

3. Episode 153 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN’s Katie Nolan, one of the hosts of SportsCenteron Snap and the host of a new ESPN Audio podcast— Sports? with Katie Nolan. In this podcast, Nolan discusses the major differences between working at ESPN and Fox Sports; the story of calling Fox Sports president Eric Shanks to get out of her Fox contract; her frustrations of not working for months; how ESPN made it known they were interested in hiring her; the content she hopes to produce with her podcast; calling Donald Trump a “stupid f---ing person” on Viceland and the ramifications for that choice of expression; whether she regrets using those words in that forum; ESPN’s discipline for her decision; whether we will see more women as solo hosts of sports opinion show; what she expects from Jimmy Garoppolo over the next decade; why she loves Mina Kimes; the impact of Michelle Beadle on her professionally; working in new mediums; and much more. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

4. Non-sports pieces of note

• Absolutely loved this from the New York Times: Inside one of America’s last pencil factories

• From Terrence McCoy of the Washington Post: Her ‘perfect child’ was now schizophrenic and homeless. Could she find him on one of the year’s coldest days?