IF IT could, NBC might schedule Sunday Night Football seven nights a week. While the fourth-place network's average prime-time rating in 2009--10 has fallen 3% from last season, SNF's is up more than 20%—and it has been the week's top show in prime time 11 times. NBC is not the only network on which the sport has become must-see TV, though. The average audience for all NFL games is up 13% over last season. Fox's NFL Nielsens are up 13%, CBS's 3% and ESPN's 21%. No wonder Variety dubbed the NFL "this fall's hottest reality show." College ratings have skyrocketed too: The SEC title game between Alabama and Florida got an 11.8 overnight rating for CBS, up 13% from the '08 game (which featured the same teams). It was the highest-rated regular-season college game in three years.
Why the boom? Well, there's a recession on, and TV football, for the most part, is free. But other factors have contributed. One is high-definition TV, which is now in roughly half of U.S. households with a television. Says NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, "In football HD is just so much more effective, particularly in [visually] setting up the play before it starts." Ebersol also cites marquee matchups in the most attractive time slots. "The NFL approaches scheduling in a much more television-friendly way than at any time in its history," he says.
Finally, there's the dramatic return of an aging gunslinger. ESPN's Oct. 5 meeting between Brett Favre's Vikings and his old team, the Packers, drew the largest cable audience ever (21.84 million viewers). "To have a legend at 40 come back this way is one of those things that transcends sports," Ebersol declares. Hmmm ... should Jay Leno be watching his blind side to see if Brett will replace him weeknights at 10?