Like all the great empires of antiquity, the NFL is subjected to frequent analysis regarding its decline and fall. Unlike Tiberius Caesar or Kublai Khan, however, Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones, and the rest of the league’s power structure discern the relative health of their kingdom via weekly television ratings. While these reports are only slightly more elucidating and equitable than tea leaves, that tea is looking pretty delicious after the first week of the 2018 season.
For all the talk of fan boycotts due to players’ protests against police brutality and social injustice, viewership actually increased for the league’s opening weekend. But saying that ratings have improved based on raw audience numbers is like claiming the weather’s better because it’s 6 degrees warmer than it was yesterday. Sure, you can wear shorts and a T-shirt outside, but that forecast doesn’t account for, say, torrential rain showers or sharknadoes. Similarly, there is no singular metric for “television ratings,” and you should not obsess over the minutiae of things like market share unless you’re being paid a network executive’s salary to do so.
In July, Timothy Burke wrote a clearheaded explanation about the myth of the NFL’s ratings woes for Deadspin. Thanks to the rise of cord cutting and other factors, the general audience for broadcast networks decreased by 16 percent in 2017. As Burke explains, “The NFL’s ratings have fallen substantially less than TV as a whole.” But for every good bit of NFL ratings data, it’s easy to find numbers that tell a different story. To wit: Donald Trump doesn’t know how to use a computer, but he still manages to obtain data points that fit his pet narrative that the league is dying due to protests. (More on that in a bit.)
What’s the best way to keep all this seemingly contradictory information straight? It’s simple: Don’t even try!
In the spirit of embracing this confusion, here are five numbers that prove the NFL is on its last legs and five that demonstrate the league is an unwavering ratings monster that will never die.
Ratings number that proves the NFL is as good as dead: 19.
NBC’s Thursday night season opener between Atlanta and Philadelphia drew 19 million viewers, a 13 percent decline from the previous year. While the Framers of the Constitution didn’t explicitly say that it’s the president’s duty to inform the public of network overnights, Trump went ahead and tweeted about it just to be safe.
The tweet is noteworthy because Trump, atypically, used an accurate number. Sure, he ignored that kickoff was delayed nearly an hour due to weather and the fact that no players actively protested beforehand, but this marked an improvement over his previous attacks, which often consisted of completely made-up figures.
Ratings number that proves the NFL will never die: 17.1.
CBS’ regional NFL broadcasts on Sunday averaged 17.1 million viewers, a 29 percent improvement from last season. Should this impressive jump be taken with a grain of salt considering last year’s opening weekend coincided with Hurricane Irma, a storm that knocked out power for roughly two-thirds of Florida households?
No, because NFL is back, baby.
Ratings number that proves the NFL is as good as dead: 28.2.
Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers earned a ratings share of 28.2 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the worst number for a Cowboys opener since 2009. Sure, the Cowboys are a sad, uninspiring husk of a team this year, but it usually takes Dallas fans at least six weeks to figure that out.
Ratings number that proves the NFL will never die: 12.5.
Fox averaged 12.5 million viewers for its early slate of opening weekend games, an 11 percent improvement from last year. While the aforementioned late game underperformed in Dallas’ local market, national viewership rose by 2 percent for the time slot.
Ratings number that proves the NFL is as good as dead: 22.1.
Around 22.1 million people watched Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers’ thrilling comeback against the Chicago Bears on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, a 9 percent decline from last year’s primetime tally.
Ratings number that proves the NFL will never die: Five.
The five top-rated television programs last week were NFL broadcasts.
Ratings number that proves the NFL is as good as dead: 10.3.
ESPN’s Monday Night Football had a double-header last week, and the early game between the New York Jets and Detroit Lions attracted 10.3 million viewers. This represents a 9 percent decline from last year’s Monday opener.
Ratings number that proves the NFL will never die: 20.
Last season, 20 of the 30 highest-rated television programs were NFL games.
Ratings number that proves the NFL is as good as dead: 9.6.
ESPN’s late game on Monday, between the Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders, drew 9.6 million viewers, which is a 3 percent decline from the previous season.
Ratings number that proves the NFL will never die: More than zero.
As in more than zero people tuned in on Sunday to see Nathan Peterman and the Buffalo Bills lose to Joe Flacco’s Baltimore Ravens, 47–3. The fact that anyone watched this game is a sign that the NFL is in good shape, and, according to the New York Post, that game “was the highest recorded Week 1 game since 2015.” If anything, the league is far more popular than it has any business being.