The final viewership numbers for the NFL’s regular season arrived this week and the Sunday packages (NBC, CBS, Fox) were all up over last year

By Richard Deitsch
January 10, 2016

If you wanted a game to explain the powerful hold the NFL has over television viewers, you would do very well by choosing Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win over Cincinnati on Saturday night in the AFC Wild Card game. It was equal parts compelling, dirty, unwatchable, violence-filled, magnificent (Martavis Bryant’s touchdown catch), and you could not take your eyes off the screen. I can only speak for myself that I felt both enthralled and guilty at the same time as I watched the carnage in front of me. I wanted to look away. I could not look away. 

A long time ago, back in 2014, there was a thought among some NFL observers that the drumbeat of negative headlines about the league, from the collective outrage over the actions of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson to the ongoing concussion crisis, would impact the NFL’s television ratings.

So much for that.

College Football
Details for ESPN's Megacast of the College Football Playoff title game

The final viewership numbers for the NFL’s regular season arrived this week and the Sunday packages (NBC, CBS, Fox) were all up over last year. Same with the Thursday night package across CBS and NFL Network. Of the five NFL television rights holders, ESPN was the only partner with a decline for game viewership, dropping for the second straight year. But that’s likely due to cord-cutting as opposed to a statement on viewer popularity.

Is there a ceiling on NFL ratings? I don’t think so in the near-term. Those shouting that there is a war on football are also narrowcasting a small group of opinionists that don’t have the clout to re-shape viewer behavior. There cannot be a war on NFL football when the nation’s largest broadcast entities are pumping millions into promoting a product they paid billions to air. Could there be a decline 20 years from now if a generation of parents keep their kids out of the game? Sure. But I would not expect that to happen.

Here’s how each individual network did in 2015:

• Fox drew 20.75 million viewers across all its games, a slight increase over last year’s 20.728 million average and the second most-watched year season since broadcasting NFL games in 1994. Fox said its most-watched NFL seasons have come in the last seven years (2013: 21.2 million; 2015: 20.75; 2014: 20.73; 2010: 20.11 million; 2011: 20.10 million; 2012: 19.7 million; and 2009: 19.1).

The network’s most-watched broadcast came in Week 8 when the Seahawks-Cowboys drew 29.4 million viewers. Fox’s Week 15 singleheader featuring the Panthers-Giants drew 25 million viewers, FOX’s highest-rated NFL single-header since 1997.

On the studio front, Fox NFL Sunday averaged 5.3 million viewers, its most-watched season since 2010, and up eight percent in audience (5.3 million vs. 4.9). Fox NFL Kickoff (11:00 a.m.-noon ET) drew 1.2 million viewers.

• CBS said its NFL telecasts averaged 19.1 million viewers, a two percent increase over last year’s 18.7 million viewers.  The 19.1 million viewers was the highest number of average viewers for the regular-season for the AFC television package in 29 years. The network said its 16-game Thursday Night Football schedule on CBS and NFL Network (and over-the air stations) averaged 13 million viewers, up 6% compared to 12.3 million in 2014. The games that aired on CBS during Weeks 2-8, & 14 were the most-watched program on television in primetime for that night across all networks, and all six primetime games on NFL Network and over-the-air stations (Weeks 9-16) were the highest-rated and most-watched program on cable television for each of the Thursday nights they aired.

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• ESPN’s 17 Monday Night Football telecasts in 2015 averaged 12.90 million viewers, down from 13.35 million in 2014 and 13.68 million viewers in 2013. The broadcast did win its night all 16 weeks of the 2015 season among all key male demos and adults 18-34 and 18-49.The final Monday Night Football broadcast of 2015, Broncos-Bengals, drew 15.81 million viewers, the most-viewed MNF telecast of the season.

According to the Sports Business Daily, ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, shortened to two hours this season, averaged 1.7 million viewers, down 11%  from 1.9 million viewers for the three-hour show last season. Sunday NFL Insiders averaged 1.2 million viewers while ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown averaged just under 2.0 million viewers, down 5% from 2.1 million viewers in ’14.

• NBC’s Sunday Night Football drew 22.5 million viewers, the show’s best viewership ever for SNF on NBC, and according to NBC, the best-ever for the NFL’s premier primetime package in 19 years (22.7 million for ABC’s MNF in 1996). SNF’s viewership increased six percent from last season (21.3 million viewers) and NBC said the show is on pace to rank as the No. 1 show in U.S. household rating and viewership for the entire primetime television season for the fifth consecutive year (September-May season, based on Nielsen live plus same day data), which would make it one of only four TV shows since 1950 to accomplish that feat (American Idol, The Cosby Show, All In The Family, and Gunsmoke).

Football Night in America was the most-watched weekly studio show in sports, averaging 8.7 million viewers from the 7:30 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET time slot. That was up seven percent from last year (8.1 million). NBC said the 8-8:30 p.m. ET portion of Football Night in America (including pre-kick coverage), averaged 13.2 million viewers, which would rank No. 6 among regularly-scheduled primetime shows in the demographic. 

"It would be blind to ignore the impact daily fantasy sports may have had on ratings," said Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp, who covers television ratings for the publication. "Football is just so well suited for fantasy in general, and the rise of DFS only helped. NBC's huge gain in primetime also was nice for the NFL. The domination there is pretty indicative of the dearth of good primetime programming to challenge live sports. Not sure how ESPN rights the ship with MNF numbers. [ESPN president] John Skipper better be asking [NFL broadcasting chief] Howard Katz for some solid matchups next season."

Roundtable: What will media coverage of Super Bowl look like in 50 years?

On Sunday afternoon the viewership numbers came in for the wild-card games. CBS said the Steelers-Bengals averaged 31.2 million viewers, a 12 percent increase over last year’s 27.9 million viewers for the Saturday primetime wild-card game (Baltimore-Pittsburgh, on NBC). The game was the most-watched AFC wild-card game on any network in four years, dating back to the 42.4 million viewers for CBS’s telecast of the Steelers-Broncos on January 8, 2012.

ESPN said its Saturday afternoon NFL wild-card game drew 25,171,000 viewers on ESPN and ABC (the game was the first NFL game on ABC in 10 years), up 13 percent from last year’s wild-card Game (Cardinals-Panthers) on ESPN. The network said the Chiefs-Texans was the third most-watched Saturday afternoon NFL wild-card game among total viewers in 17 years.

In short: As always, you keep watching.


( examines the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Camera operators are unsung heroes when it comes to the production of sporting events. You don’t know the names of the men and women who perform the role but we count on them to get us the amazing images that make a production. On Saturday night, CBS operator John Pavlovich, who has been with the network since 1998, was in the right corner of Paul Brown Stadium, filming the acrobatic third-quarter grab by Bryant. Bravo to him for this fine work.

1a. The NFL Today had one of its best moments of the season following the end of the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game. Here’s a partial transcript, courtesy of CBS Sports:

Boomer Esiason: This was a disgraceful performance by the Cincinnati Bengals. An ugly performance by one, Vontaze Burfict, who should not only be fined but suspended for a significant amount of time. The guy is a danger on the field to opposing football players … I'm a former Bengal and I'm embarrassed by the way this game ended and by the way these guys acted on the field today. I feel bad for Marvin Lewis. And I’ll tell you one thing, if Marvin Lewis can't control his players, maybe Marvin Lewis shouldn't be standing there on the sidelines coaching.

Bill Cowher: We saw this with Odell Beckham and Josh Norman. Right now that responsibility, I take it away from the officials, that is the head coach … When players get to that line and they cross it, they should no longer be in the game because they become a detriment to your team. That was Vontaze Burfict at the end of that game. He lost his game and that goes on the head coach.     

Tony Gonzalez: That is absolutely embarrassing.  It has no place in the league. It's just stupid.  That’s all you can say—it’s stupid.

Bengals lose all control as all hell breaks loose in loss to Steelers
Bart Scott:

1b. For a remarkable alternative view: Here is NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders defending the Burfict hit on Antonio Brown.

1c. NBC said that Denver was the top-rated Sunday Night Football market for the second straight year. The list of top SNF markets for the year:

1. Denver  21.9

2. Milwaukee  21.3

3. Seattle 19.5

T4. New Orleans 19.3

T4. Las Vegas 19.3

6. Albuquerque 19.2

7. Phoenix 18.9

8. Indianapolis 18.3

T9. Richmond 18.2

T9. Boston 18.2

11. Minneapolis 18.1

12. Norfolk 17.0

13. Dallas 16.9

T14. Charlotte 16.3

T14. Philadelphia 16.3

16. Sacramento 16.2

T17. Cincinnati  15.9

T17. Portland 15.9

T19. San Antonio 15.8

T19. West Palm Beach 15.8

1d. Nice work by ESPN Monday Night Football announcer Mike Tirico (and producer Jay Rothman) to acknowledge on air during ESPN’s game on Saturday the work of cameraman Mike Chiasson, who has worked on ESPN’s NFL games since 1989, making him ESPN’s longest-tenured NFL game employee. The 70-year-old

will be taking less assignments heading forward.

1e. Independent of what you thought about reporter Josina Anderson’s piece on Adrian Peterson, I give ESPN a lot of credit for asking Peterson on camera about the comments he made (to SI) about ESPN employee Cris Carter.

1f. ​An ESPN source said that the network had been wanted to do a sit-down interview with Peterson all year, but his camp would not agree to ESPN’s stipulation that every subject was on the table, including the child-abuse charges (later reduced to a single charge of reckless assault) he faced last year. Finally, the source said, Peterson’s camp agreed.

1g. In a very odd look on Sunday, NBC’s Bob Costas explained why his network did not ask Peterson about the felony child-abuse charges (later reduced to a single charge of reckless assault) last year under the framework of, “if there were enough time to do that subject at all and ask appropriate follow-ups we would have done so here.” NBC has a massive digital operation that could have housed any footage that didn’t make air under whatever time constraints existed. Very hard to buy what was being sold here from a network that usually does solid editorial work.

2. According to Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp: ESPN averaged 11.84 million viewers for its six New Years Eve bowl games, down 19% from 14.68 million last year.

2a. On this note, Broadcasting and Cable writer John Consoli reported on Friday that media buyers say ESPN owes upwards of $20 million in ad makegoods for ratings shortfalls for the two games. That’s a truly stunning number. Consoli noted in his piece that the ratings estimates and guarantee levels ESPN offered to advertisers for the two playoff semifinals games significantly overreached. That was likely based off the optimism from last year’s playoff record ratings. ESPN declined to comment on the story to SI.

As this column noted last week, ESPN drew 15.64 million viewers for its Orange Bowl matchup featuring Clemson’s 37–17 victory over Oklahoma, down 45% in viewership when compared to last year’s first Playoff semifinal (Oregon-Florida State). The primetime matchup featuring Alabama’s 38–0 win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl drew 18.55 million, a drop of 34%  from last year’s equivalent (Ohio State-Alabama). If you are looking for a sports television parallel in modern times, head to the year after Michael Jordan left the NBA the second time. The 1998 NBA Finals (Bulls-Jazz) averaged 29 million viewers. The following year, the Spurs-Knicks five-game series drew a shade over 16 million. (Worth noting is 1999 was a lockout year, with only a 50-game regular season.) Last year’s College Football Playoff semifinals averaged a shade over 28 million for both games. It’s not easy to lose more than 12 million viewers for a sports broadcast from the previous year but that is exactly what the CFP did.

College Football
Three matchups to watch in the Alabama-Clemson CFP title game

Consoli said advertisers are concerned about next season’s potential audience levels for the games. “Even if the ratings guarantees by ESPN are set lower,” Consoli wrote, “advertisers would prefer the games be moved to New Year’s Day or even on consecutive primetime nights, exclusive of New Year’s Eve, when more people would likely watch.”

When I spoke to ESPN officials last week, they said there are no immediate plans to ask the CFP to reconsider the New Years Eve playoff plan. Keep in mind CFB are the rights owner of the property; ESPN is merely a rights holder. ESPN’s only hope is to prod College Football Playoff executive Bill Hancock and his conference commish cartel into acting with less self-interest. Hancock continues to defend the indefensible.

If you are an optimist, even the college football overlords do not want to see their broadcast partners take a bath on this package. As we have said time and time again, the idea is a bust and worse, an insult to college football fans.

2b. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, on the low ratings for the playoffs on New Year’s Eve: “I call the games, and if they tell me it’s on Dec. 31, it’s on Dec. 31.  If they tell me it’s on Jan. 1, it’s on Jan. 1. I pretty much go where I’m told to go, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to have a chance to be able to call these big games. I’m not complaining at all, but I think you can tell by the ratings that the American public definitely didn’t necessarily jive with the New Year’s Eve games. You can make an argument, well, the games weren’t necessarily that competitive.  I think even if the games were competitive, I think we would have seen a noticeable difference in the ratings from the first year to the second year.  We’ll have to see what Bill Hancock and the conference commissioners decide to do in the few year.  They seem to be very set in their ways, that we are going to try to create a new tradition.  We’ll see if they are going to kind of dig in and just say the heck with it, that’s the way we feel, we don’t care about the ratings. Or if they are going to be able to adjust to what the American public wants which is moving the games off of New Year’s Eve.”

2b. ESPN drew 2.75 million viewers for its triple overtime Kansas-Oklahoma college basketball game. Karp said that it was the. Second best Monday Big 12 game ever on ESPN behind Iowa State-Kansas in Jan. 1997. For some context: The Bachelor drew 7.6 million that nigh from 8-10ET while The Bachelor’s post show drew 4.2 million from 10-11p ET.

3. Episode No. 37 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features Chris Haynes, who covers the Cavaliers and the NBA for and The Plain Dealer.

In this episode, Haynes discusses covering LeBron James on a day-to-day basis, the modern-day responsibilities of an NBA beat reporter, the NBA organizations that are most and least media-friendly, how young reporters can improve on a beat, whether being an reporter of color in a league predominantly African-American is an advantage of disadvantage, the window of opportunity James has to win a championship, and the difficulties of maintaining a marriage on a beat with constant travel.

Haynes also talks in-depth about a first-person piece he recently wrote that went viral. In that piece, Haynes, a former reporter with Comcast SportsNet Northwest covering the Trail Blazers, alleged racial profiling by the Portland Police Bureau in connection with a never disclosed 2013 arrest and acquittal. Haynes wrote the piece amid the scrutiny James faced for not weighing in on the Nov. 2014 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by a Cleveland police officer. It’s a piece really worth reading.

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.

Episode No. 36 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast featured Fox Sports writer and former Sports Illustrated staffer Jimmy Traina for an hour of sports media gabbing: 

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• Probably the best piece I’ve read so far in 2016.

The lawyer who became DuPont’s worst nightmare

 • The Celebrity Surgeon Who Used Love, Money, and the Pope to Scam an NBC News Producer 

• CBS Sports golf writer Kyle Porter writes about the death of his daughter.

• Via The Washington PostNorth Korea is a joke. And that’s the problem. 

• Globe and Mail reporters Andrea Woo, Ian Bailey and Joanna Slater spent 14 months, 8,100 words on the homeless man who died at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver

•Via Hamed Aleaziz of The San Francisco Chronicle: An American and a Muslim, but first of all, a journalist

• New York Times Magazine writer Jay Caspian Kang on how daily fantasy sports can be a sucker’s bet for the average player 

• Sandy Jenkins was a shy, daydreaming accountant at the Collin Street Bakery, the world’s most famous fruitcake company. He was tired of feeling invisible, So he started stealing—and got a little carried away 

• In Iraq, a Detroit DJ fights ISIS on the airwaves 

From ESPN’s Bill Barnwell: “I lost 125 pounds in 2015 and so I wrote about addiction, depression, body image, and how I got back on track.” 

• From The Intercept: A Nebraska teen describes life in solitary, where he was locked up for three months 

• T Rees Shaprio of The Washington Post has done terrific work on the search for the true facts of Rolling Stone’s Virginia gang rape story 

Sports pieces of note:

•’s C. Trent Rosecrans on Ken Griffey Jr. helping out his mother 

• Don Yee, the agent for Tom Brady, advocates college football players holding out of the title game 

• SI’s Tom Verducci makes a compelling case why Fred McGriff is getting screwed

• From Will Hobson and Steven Rich of The Washington Post: Salaries for Power Five conference bosses soar 

• From Mashable: 'Meth Curry' and the casual cruelty of Internet memes 

• SI’s Tom Verducci on Paul DePodesta’s hiring by the Browns

• From The New York Times: Guns to gloves

What I learned on book leave

• The former Chicago Tribune writer Philip Hersh has launched a new web site, Globetrotting by Philip Hersh, on Olympic sports

• The Indiana Daily Student followed around freshman Haley Wilson for her first semester at Indiana following the murder of her sister Hannah Wilson, a former IU student

5. ESPN Radio, which for years proclaimed Mike Lupica as a major radio talent, announced significant changes in its weekend lineup including a show that debuted on Saturday (from 5-8 p.m. ET) featuring ESPN New York’s Dave Rothenberg, NBA reporter Michael Wallace & Mike Golic Jr., a former NFL player and the son of Mike & Mike host, Mike Golic. When I’ve heard the 26-year-old Golic Jr. on ESPN previously, particularly with Adnan Virk, he impressed me with his prep and wit. I was curious how he viewed working at a division where his father made a broadcasting name and interviewed him via email over the weekend.

Richard Deitsch: How did you end up landing the Saturday show with Dave Rothenberg and Mike Wallace?

Mike Golic Jr.: This September, after I was released by the Saints, I was fortunate to get an opportunity to appear on Fantasy Focus with Dave Rothenberg and Eric Karabell every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So I worked with Dave every Sunday this fall for four hours and really developed a great relationship with him. I was very rough around the edges when I first started, but he and Eric were very patient and extremely helpful. They also put up with me singing every week, so I am forever indebted to them! Later in the season, Louise Cornetta, ESPN’s weekend programming director, floated the idea of me joining Dave and Mike Wallace on this show after the season, and here we are!

RD: Joe Buck is someone who for many years had to deal with tag of getting a big opportunity because of his father's last name. You are now working for a network where your father has had a long career. How do you look at the opportunity you received with relation to your father being a longtime ESPN Radio employee?

MGJ: Being part of the second generation of anything is always funny like that. I understand that having the last name Golic will certainly get my foot in the door; I don’t deny that at all. But I also know that this is a performance-based industry, and if I don’t perform when I get an opportunity, I won’t have a job for very long.

RD: Has ESPN Radio management given you any indication how long they are committed to this Saturday show?

MGJ: No specific indication but everyone I’ve talked to is excited about it—as am I.  That’s sort of where the former player in me kicks in. I’m certainly aware of the bigger picture, but it’s never really my focus. I’m just excited to show up every Saturday and have a great show with some very talented co-hosts. Every time I’m on is a chance to get better at what I’m doing.

RD: How would you describe your style as a sports-talk host?

MGJ: I’m not sure I really have a “style.” I really just want to be as authentic as possible. The best piece of advice my dad gave me when I started doing radio this fall was just to be yourself. There’s certainly a time and a place to have serious discussions and dispense useful information, but I’m always trying to have as much fun as possible on air.

RD: You played in the league for the last couple of years. How, if it at all, can that help you as an opinionist on a show?

MGJ: It’s definitely an asset. My brief foray into professional football was obviously not the long, illustrious career I had imagined for myself, but that’s part of life. Having the chance to be on the inside of some first-class organizations and work with some great coaches and players was extremely beneficial to me as a player. But it also helps me in the seat I’m in now. I can use that knowledge and experience when I’m giving opinions on a show, and apply my own unique perspective and sets of experiences to events that come up across the vast landscape of sports.

RD: Is broadcasting the career path you are planning to pursue heading forward, and if so why?

MGJ: Absolutely. I’ve played and loved sports my whole life—they've been such an important part of molding me into the man I am today. If I have the chance to make a living by talking about something that’s been so near and dear to me for so long, I’m going to take it and run with it.

5a. Fortune Magazine’s Dan Primack on how Boston-based Barstool Sports was bought by The Chernin Group, with a cameo from former NFL quarterback Jared Lorenzen

5b. From The Wall Street Journal: Why ESPN Lets Its Commentators Tweet Domino’s Ads

5c. ESPN Films announced last week that documentaries on the 1985 Chicago Bears, the Duke lacrosse scandal, and the division’s first-ever miniseries event, OJ: Made in America, will air over the upcoming months. First up is the ‘85 Bears, which will debut Feb. 4, at 9 p.m. ET and is directed by Jason Hehir (who did the The Fab Five) and executive produced by Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley. Fantastic Lies (on Duke lacrosse) will air on March 13, at 9 p.m. ET.  The doc is directed by Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) and will premiere on the 10th anniversary of the party that ignited what became a national firestorm. OJ: Made in America will be a five-part documentary and the first episodic documentary by ESPN Films. ESPN says will examine the history of race over the last several decades through the lens of OJ Simpson’s rise and fall. The mini-series is scheduled for June.

Other upcoming 30 for 30 films include the Orlando Magic of the mid-90s (coming in April), and the connection between the lives and careers of former New York Mets stars Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden (this summer).

5d. NBCSN will air the first-ever under-21s Premier League match televised in the U.S. on Monday at 2:30 p.m. Tottenham Hotspur U21 and Chelsea U21 will meet from Stevenage's Lamex Stadium in Hertfordshire, England. The match will also be streamed live on NBC Sports Live Extra.

5e. Sports Business Journal writer Liz Mullen examined The Players’ Tribune

5f. Professional sports contrarians continue to get paid, particularly in Shanks Land.

5g. As part of the year-long celebration marking its 50th anniversary in 2016, Runner’s World has created Runner’s World Selects to highlight 50 of the best stories from the vast Runner’s World archives as chosen by the editors.

5h. Check out this amazing footage of Jesse Owens from the 1936 Berlin Olympics