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Football TV Ratings Soar: the NFL’s Playbook for Success
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Football TV Ratings Soar: the NFL’s Playbook for Success

Last year’s Super Bowl was the most watched TV program in U.S. history. With 106.5 million viewers, the game supplanted the long-time leading final episode of M*A*S*H (which had 105.5 million viewers in 1983).  Will this year’s NFL championship game beat the record again? Many factors, from the competitiveness of the game to the weather, will come into play, but there is no question that football as a whole is more popular than ever on television.

A decade ago, the Baltimore Ravens – with a defense coached by Rex Ryan – beat the New York Giants in a lopsided 34-7 victory. Super Bowl XXXV was watched by 84.3 million viewers, down nearly 4 million from the year before. While that level of viewership was still high, the NFL’s prominence in the national consciousness and on television is stronger now, thanks to a perfect storm of social, media, cultural and technological developments in addition to some pretty savvy marketing.

It’s not just the Super Bowl that is drawing more viewers: Regular season ratings are also strong. In the past five years, ratings of NFL games have risen by more than one percentage point (from 9.3 in 2006 to 10.6 in 2010), accounting for more than 3.5 million additional viewers per game. In fact, eight out of the top ten primetime programs for the entire year were football games (and one – Undercover Boss – appeared immediately after the Super Bowl).

Top 10 TV Programs – Single Telecast 2010
Rank Telecast Originator Date Aired Total Persons Rating
1 Super Bowl XLIV CBS 2/7/10 36.5
2 Super Bowl XLIV Post Game CBS 2/7/10 25.8
3 Super Bowl Kick-Off CBS 2/7/10 20.8
4 FOX NFC Championship FOX 1/24/10 19.8
5 AFC Championship on CBS CBS 1/24/10 16.1
6 Academy Awards ABC 3/7/10 14.3
7 Undercover Boss CBS 2/7/10 13.2
8 FOX NFC Playoff-Sun FOX 1/17/10 12.9
9 AFC Divisional Playoff-Sun CBS 1/17/10 12.2
10 FOX NFC Wildcard Game FOX 1/10/10 11.8
Source: The Nielsen Company.

What accounts for football’s hold on the television population? As usual, there isn’t only one answer, but here are some possibilities.

Cross Marketing

While most other professional sports are broadcast on two or three networks, the NFL is spread across five, including three of the four major broadcast networks. This ubiquity has the effect of creating a cross-platform promotional powerhouse. Although the networks ostensibly promote their own upcoming games, in reality they are promoting football in general and the average viewer is exposed to myriad football promotions throughout the season. As a consequence, the average viewer is virtually guaranteed exposure to football marketing and advertising.

More Female Fans

More American women watch the NFL than any other team sport, and not just the Super Bowl.  In the regular season, the NFL has eclipsed Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association in having the largest percentage of female viewers. In the past decade the NFL has launched several marketing and outreach programs, including coaching clinics, apparel that fits women and donning pink during breast cancer awareness month. Further, watching football tends to be a social event, with people watching in groups of varying gender composition. As a result, the percentage of the football audience that is female has grown from 32.6% in 2006 to 33.6% in 2010.

Season Household Rating Total Audience Viewers (000) Male Viewers (000) and % of audience Female Viewers (000) and % of audience
2006 9.3 14,430  100.00% 9,732  67.44% 4,697  32.55%
2010 10.6 17,867  100.00% 11,865  66.41% 6,002  33.59%
Source: The Nielsen Company.

Biggest markets have successful seasons

NFL has always relied on a mix of large and small markets, and with a strict salary cap and generous revenue sharing, teams from smaller markets such as Green Bay or Pittsburgh can compete financially with Chicago or New York.  As a result markets and regions are not perpetually at a competitive disadvantage as they are in other sports. In 2010, a whopping 24 of 32 NFL Local Markets enjoyed higher regular season ratings, with New Orleans pulling in the highest rating (43.9, up 6%) and St. Louis posting the highest percentage growth (up 66%).

Nevertheless, this year, some of the largest markets had the most successful teams and their local regular season game ratings posted solid increases, which contributed to higher national ratings when these teams appeared in national broadcasts.

Largest NFL Markets
Market 2010 Local Rating YOY Rating % Change
New York (Giants) 14.7 18%
Boston 30.9 16%
Chicago 27.6 15%
New York (Jets) 12.7 10%
Philidelphia 28.3 5%
Source: The Nielsen Company.

QBs have Become Stars, On and Off the Field

In 2001, journeyman Trent Dilfer led the Ravens to a Championship, creating the perception that a team can win a Super Bowl without a marquee quarterback. Most NFL teams now subscribe to the belief that the quarterback is the most critical cog, both on and off the field. The Cowboys, for example, lost QB Tony Romo to injury and saw their season and ratings go south.

In recent years, the NFL has tried to safeguard their stars, implementing rules to ensure that the QB isn’t tackled low, hit in the head or after the whistle. And to a large extent, the quarterbacks this year were healthy and able to serve as the marquee names for their teams.

Interest in quarterbacks goes beyond the stadium: they are making news off the field too. Many have been linked romantically to supermodels, actresses and singers, creating news in celebrity magazines and other non-traditional media. Others have generated publicity for less positive reasons.

Leading the Super Bowl XLV teams are Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers. Rodgers is a rising star but  Roethlisberger, who has already won two Super Bowl rings, saw his reputation suffer in the wake of sexual assault allegations that were brought against him.

These perceptions of Rodgers and Roethlisberger are borne out by their N-Scores.  Together with E-Poll, Nielsen has devised a method of measuring the endorsement potential of more than 1,000 athletes and sports personalities.  Neither Rodgers nor Roethlisberger have N-Scores that approach the best known and most popular quarterbacks:

QB N-Scores
Peyton Manning 262
Brett Favre 196
Tom Brady 131
Aaron Rodgers 39
Ben Roethlisberger 24
Source: The Nielsen Company

The trend lines further illustrate the challenges trajectory of Rodgers and Roethlisberger’s N-Score ratings:

rodgers

roethlisberger

Throughout 2010, football continued to break TV ratings records, showing that even in a fragmented media environment, it is still possible to generate large television numbers for programming that attracts viewers in all demographics. Nielsen cannot predict whether this year’s Super Bowl will have the largest TV audience in history, but it is all but certain to be the most-watched program of 2011.

For more historical information on Super Bowl viewing, please see the following historical table:

Super Bowl Viewing, 1966-2009
Super Bowl Season Date Network Rating Avg. Number of Homes (000) Avg. Number of Persons 2+ (000)
XLIV 2009 Feb 7, 2010* CBS 45 51,728 106,476
XLIII 2008 Feb 1, 2009* NBC 42 48,139 98,732
XLII 2007 Feb 3, 2008* FOX 43.1 48,665 97,448
XLI 2006 Feb 4 2007 * CBS 42.6 47,505 93,184
XL 2005 Feb 5 2006 * ABC 41.6 45,867 90,745
XXXIX 2004 Feb 6 2005 FOX 41.1 45,081 86,072
XXXVIII 2003 Feb 1 2004 CBS 41.4 44,908 89,795
XXXVII 2002 Jan 26 2003 ABC 40.7 43,433 88,637
XXXVI 2001 Feb 3 2002 FOX 40.4 42,664 86,801
XXXV 2000 Jan 28 2001 CBS 40.4 41,270 84,335
XXXIV 1999 Jan 30 2000 ABC 43.3 43,618 88,465
XXXIII 1998 Jan 31 1999 FOX 40.2 39,992 83,720
XXXII 1997 Jan 25 1998 NBC 44.5 43,630 90,000
XXXI 1996 Jan 26 1997 FOX 43.3 42,000 87,870
XXX 1995 Jan 28 1996 NBC 46 44,145 94,080
XXIX 1994 Jan 29 1995 ABC 41.3 39,400 83,420
XXVIII 1993 Jan 30 1994 NBC 45.5 42,860 90,000
XXVII 1992 Jan 31 1993 NBC 45.1 41,990 90,990
XXVI 1991 Jan 26 1992 CBS 40.3 37,120 79,590
XXV 1990 Jan 27 1991 ABC 41.9 39,010 79,510
XXIV 1989 Jan 28 1990 CBS 39 35,920 73,852
XXIII 1988 Jan 22 1989 NBC 43.5 39,320 81,590
XXII 1987 Jan 31 1988 ABC 41.9 37,120 80,140
XXI 1986 Jan 25 1987 CBS 45.8 40,030 87,190
XX 1985 Jan 26 1986 NBC 48.3 41,490 92,570
XIX 1984 Jan 20 1985 ABC 46.4 39,390 85,530
XVIII 1983 Jan 22 1984 CBS 46.4 38,880 77,620
XVII 1982 Jan 30 1983 NBC 48.6 40,480 81,770
XVI 1981 Jan 24 1982 CBS 49.1 40,020 85,240
XV 1980 Jan 25 1981 NBC 44.4 34,540 68,290
XIV 1979 Jan 20 1980 CBS 46.3 35,330 76,240
XIII 1978 Jan 21 1979 NBC 47.1 35,090 74,740
XII 1977 Jan 15 1978 CBS 47.2 34,410 78,940
XI 1976 Jan 09 1977 NBC 44.4 31,610 62,050
X 1975 Jan 18 1976 CBS 42.3 29,440 57,710
IX 1974 Jan 12 1975 NBC 42.4 29,040 56,050
VIII 1973 Jan 13 1974 CBS 41.6 27,540 51,700
VII 1972 Jan 14 1973 NBC 42.7 27,670 53,320
VI 1971 Jan 16 1972 CBS 44.2 27,450 56,640
V 1970 Jan 17 1971 NBC 39.9 23,980 46,040
IV 1969 Jan 11 1970 CBS 39.4 23,050 44,270
III 1968 Jan 12 1969 NBC 36 20,520 41,660
II 1967 Jan 14 1968 CBS 36.8 20,610 39,120
I 1966 Jan 15 1967 CBS 22.6 12,410 26,750
Source: The Nielsen Company.