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What's Behind the NFL's Ratings Increase in 2018?

Here's what NFL executives and Google Search data tell us about football’s bounceback in 2018.

Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.

In 2018, Roger Goodell was Mr. Irrelevant.

According to public Google Trends data, Goodell was rarely searched over the final eight months of the year, his longest unbroken stretch of relative internet anonymity (with monthly query frequency less than 5% of peak interest) since ‘08-09. Meanwhile, the NFL saw its first TV ratings increase since 2015 and its largest percentage jump this decade.

Defying television’s overall downward gravity, NFL viewership was up in 19 of the league’s markets as games accounted for 46 of the 50 most watched shows this season. To Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s executive vice president of media, those numbers simply show that the sport remains on the same track it’s long been on.

“We have done this year what we did last year and the year before and the year before that, we focused on the same things,” Rolapp said. “And we said a lot of this last year and I think it was lost…. [Ratings] fluctuate but they go in a general direction.”

Pro football is trying to be big and peaceful. This year, it’s worked.

All Press Isn’t Good Press After All

Somehow, the league evaded major controversy in 2018. President Donald Trump directly mentioned the NFL in five tweets (two of which promoted a 60 Minutes appearance), compared to 23 in ‘17 as the anthem controversy became a weekly talking point. Kareem Hunt and Reuben Foster generated negative headlines, but neither neared the long-lasting sagas that Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice or even Tom Brady played parts in. And Will Smith bungee jumped into the Grand Canyon rather than starring in a movie highlighting football’s destructive power, as ‘concussion’ and ‘cte’ both matched relevancy lows dating back to 2015 on a per-month Google search basis.

Player activism, league suspensions, and brain trauma remain pressing yet unresolved issues. But none dominated the headlines in 2018. So the shield wasn’t on CNN. Goodell wasn’t staring into cameras. Absent debate, contests took center stage.

“Fans want to see their games,” executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said. “Now we’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but when you have less distractions off the field, it just puts the eyeballs—the focus—back on the game, and that’s what the fan is tuning in for.”

Cable coverage once pushed the NFL to dominance, connecting regional fan bases and generating year round football discussion. But now, while the NBA thrives on 24/7 storylines, it feels like the country’s biggest weekly spectacle might do better without. More focus on play this year coincided with a new class of stars. In 2017, the closest guy to a breakout player in the league’s top 10 jersey sales was Vikings wideout Adam Thielen. This year, holiday sales numbers suggest that four of the top five slots could be taken by rookies Saquon Barkley and Baker Mayfield, first-year starter Patrick Mahomes, and new Bears linebacker Khalil Mack.

“We benefited from on-field trends driven by a new generation of young talent, especially at the QB position,” Fox Sports executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy Mike Mulvihill said. “The entire league is going to finish up five or six percentage points (in ratings). That’s better than I would have hoped for.”

Licensed sports merchandise leader Fanatics, which operates the NFL Shop, saw a 25% increase in regular season merchandise sales this season. Fans aren’t just tuning in again; they’re buying in, too.

“Our stars were on the field this year,” Rolapp said. “I’ve always felt the driver of viewership were the star players, how good the game is, how the big markets are performing. The football has always driven people’s interest in it.”

Maybe There’s No Such Thing as Too Much of a Good Thing

Two schools of thought dominate discussion of NFL scheduling theory. Mark Cuban became the face of one of them five years ago, declaring “the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion … I’m just telling you, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” He argued that a greedy league would eventually take things too far and turn off its fans. “They're trying to take over every night of TV,” he said. “At some point, the people get sick of it.”

Cuban’s adversaries on the topic lack a clear leader. There’s Rolapp, who responded to Cuban’s comments at the time by saying, “It’s a legitimate question, but we measure our business very simply: Is consumption going up, and is the economic value going up?” But actress Mae West put it better last century. Too much of a good thing can be wonderful. This year, team Rolapp-West got strong evidence, because Thursday Night Football was kind of wonderful.

One of the best games of the year, Chargers-Chiefs II, came on Thursday night, and several other TNF matchups (Rams-Vikings, Seahawks-Packers, Cowboys-Saints) belong somewhere in the conversation. Fox paid $3 billion for the rights to Thursday night and proceeded to line up more big-time midweek games, proving simultaneously that fans wouldn’t get burned out and that there was enough quality football to go around.

“Thursday Night Football started in 2006, and that’s when the oversaturation conversation started,” Rolapp said. “Thursday Night is now the No. 2 show in primetime—Sunday Night Football is No. 1.”

Marketable players staying healthy surely bolstered the numbers (three starting QBs landed on IR in 2018, compared to eight in ‘17). But maybe that involved more than luck. The league took fire this season—from players, fans, and media members—after instituting stricter roughing the passer and spearing penalties. Relax, Vincent argued at the time, let teams adjust. The end result would speak for itself.

On a macro level, strategic scheduling provided more marquee matchups. Teams generated the second most yards and points this century, leading to exciting, high-scoring affairs while coaches went for more fourth down and two-point conversions, offering a series of high-leverage, must-watch occasions. Group touchdown celebrations provided more memorable moments worth tuning in for. And in between all of that, officials and executives focused on improving pace of play.

During our conversation, Rolapp mentioned Netflix four times. Vincent said digital alternatives come up equally often during internal discussions. It’s clear that the league respects how easy it now is to find something else worth watching on a Sunday afternoon.

Counterintuitively, the NFL’s viewership increase didn’t come from more fans watching. In fact, the league may end up reaching fewer fans this season that it did last year, based on how the final numbers shake out. Instead, football hooked each of its viewer for longer, on average. In the digital era, that trend is likely to continue, as the sport is able to engage more deeply with its core fans while alternatives spring up to nibble at the margins of the audience.

To net another ratings increase in 2019, the NFL will likely need to pull off the same feat, getting longtime fans to watch more. The product will need to be even better, basically. But 2018 proved that kind of growth possible, at least for now.

An unforeseen off-field quagmire would still threaten the league’s agenda. Player health is far from a solved problem. But heading into the playoffs, we can bury the recent takes suggesting there is too much football or that the sport had reached an existential crisis, depositing them next to the previous set, which was equally wrong about how there isn’t a ceiling on the audience for an ‘Unstoppable Football Machine.’

“I think as a metric of our business, [ratings] are way overinflated publicly, and I think that goes for any sport quite frankly,” Rolapp said. “There are a lot of things that go into ... the strength and growth of a property.” The most important factor, he said, is the quality of play. “Everything else is window dressing.”


• As the NFL rises, could the CFP be sinking? Dan Wolken suggests so.

• We may have seen the last of Booger McFarland’s sideline cart. He’ll call Colts-Texans from the booth Saturday alongside Jason Witten and Joe Tessitore.

• ESPN is celebrating college football this year, as the sport turns 150.

• ICYMI, Antonio Brown popped up on FOX’s new celebrity singing show, The Masked Singer.

The Undefeated’s Jason Reid spent time with black Cowboys fans. Here’s what he learned.

• Axios is getting into sports.

• 4.3 million people downloaded the Yahoo Sports app this season as it offered live regular season NFL games on mobile for the first time.

• On ESPN, Greg Wyshynski explained how Spanish hockey announcers translate the game.

• Over 5 million fans worldwide reportedly watched the inaugural Pro Fighters League championship, including on NBCSN and Facebook Watch. Professional commentator Sean O’Connell won the light heavyweight title, then announced his retirement to protect his mental health and focus on broadcasting.

• Kimberley A. Martin sat down with Troy Aikman.


...For Bird Box, which I think is best enjoyed without actually watching the Netflix movie.