The National Football League bounced back to ratings dominance following a 2020 season that was disrupted by the pandemic — showing once again that pro football is still the biggest audience draw on television.
The league’s viewership for the 2021 regular season was up roughly 10% overall from the year prior, bringing in an average of 17.1 million viewers per game on TV and digital. That is the highest regular season average since 2015, according to the league.
The league also noted that all its games gained more audience than TV’s other top-rated broadcasts. During the regular season, NFL games accounted for 48 of the top 50 and 91 of the top 100 most watched telecasts.
“We’ve kind of gone back to where we would’ve been if we had not had the pandemic,” Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant, told CNN Business.
Crakes also noted that the league got “a tailwind” from out-of-home viewing — a metric from Nielsen that tracks viewers watching programming at bars, hotels or other people’s homes.
This season also had a few benefits that last season did not. For starters, there wasn’t a national election going on to distract viewers from watching. The league also added an additional week of games.
Beyond that, one of the biggest boosts to the NFL’s numbers was the return of fans to stadiums, according to Jay Rosenstein, a former VP of programming at CBS Sports.
“Last year was an anomaly since there weren’t really fans in the stands, and people were still in the heart of the pandemic,” he said. “Fans really do matter, and it raised the level for viewers this season.”
Rosenstein added that the NFL’s ability to dominate television remains “unchecked.”
“It just continues to roll on,” he said.
It also helped that so many teams were in playoff contention this season — and that many of those teams are broadly popular — including the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. Many of this season’s winning teams were also led by star quarterbacks, such as Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes.
“They had a great hand dealt to them. We got multiple great quarterbacks, lots of great stories and highly competitive games,” Crakes said. “It’s been a great year for the right teams and the right personalities.”
These ratings are great news for the NFL’s TV partners, who just signed a 10-year deal beginning in 2023 valued at more than $100 billion.
And the bountiful ratings for the league should continue in the weeks to come. The NFL is now heading into the playoffs with notable teams such as the Cowboys, Packers, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and 49ers all in contention.
“It’s going to be impossible to avoid the National Football League over the next four or five weeks,” Crakes said.