Why America loves the NFL

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The NFL holds a unique space in Americans' hearts and minds, even as the media landscape has fractured into smaller and smaller niches.iStock; BIThe NFL is America's favorite TV show. At a moment when people are tuning out of a lot of what's on broadcast and cable, the league is the one entity that manages to keep Americans glued to their screens. In an age of splintering tastes, football is the game that brings us together. It pulls across politics, age, race, location, and gender — yes, women watched football even before the Swifties tuned in.The league has been an especially shiny object of late. It accounted for 93 of the 100 most watched US TV broadcasts last year, up from 82 the year prior. An average of 17.9 million people watched regular-season games this season, up 7% from the season before. That's the highest average viewership number for the NFL since 2015. The marquee matchups are also racking up record numbers: The late-January game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens was the most watched AFC championship game ever. Even on streaming, the league is a juggernaut: Amazon's "Thursday Night Football" viewership on Prime Video saw a 24% increase from the year before, and NBCUniversal said the playoff game between the Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins, shown on Peacock, was the most streamed live event ever in the US.Sure, the latest season had some special factors in its favor. The monthslong writers and actors strikes put a lot of new content on ice for the networks and streaming companies alike. Taylor Swift started showing up at Chiefs games to support her boyfriend, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, which may have boosted ratings and made the NFL some more money. And, hey, the right-wing conspiracy theories that the Swift-Kelce affair is some sort of psyop to reelect Biden could have even helped.Not everything broke the NFL's way this year, but its sustained and growing popularity isn't just a 2023 story. Football holds a unique space in Americans' hearts and minds, even as the media landscape has fractured into smaller and smaller niches. The NFL and college football have continued to be extraordinarily strong from an audience perspective, said Brian Fuhrer, the senior vice president of product leadership at Nielsen, for a couple of big reasons. One, sports fans will go to great lengths (including piracy) to find the content they're looking for. Two, the NFL, in particular, does a lot to cater to its audience. "The NFL has done, I think, a really good job of continuing to evolve their product to make it as TV-friendly as it can be and give each city and region teams that they seem to continue to really engage with, which makes it really have a driving force of bringing audiences," he said.Professional football also has the advantage of feeling like an event. The season has fewer games than basketball or baseball, and they're clustered mostly on one blockbuster day every week. If you're an NFL fan, you've got just 17 chances to see your team play in the regular season, so they're all a bit of a special occasion. NBA and MLB teams, on the other hand, play 82 and 162 regular-season games, respectively. This eventizing means more people schedule their lives around the sport: The NFL picks up a lot of out-of-home viewing, which means more people go out to bars and gather in groups to watch big games.

The NFL has done, I think, a really good job of continuing to evolve their product to make it as TV-friendly as it can be.

Brian Fuhrer, senior vice president at Nielsen

The NFL also benefits from the deference that networks show the league. Broadcast's core audience is typically older, so when NFL games come on in the fall it draws younger viewers back in. That gives networks an opportunity to promote their other content, like the Grammys or "The Masked Singer" or one of those indiscernible crime dramas. This trickle-down value to other content means networks are deferential to the league. They're not eager to counterprogram big games, which their programming would lose against anyway.In addition to viewer behavior, the product itself has been on the upswing for the past few years, said Jon Lewis, the founder of Sports Media Watch, which tracks the sports media industry. It has benefited from a crop of star young quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson. New rivalries have emerged, and teams that haven't historically been very successful — the Buffalo Bills, the Detroit Lions, the Chiefs — have had good runs. "It's a golden age for the NFL," Lewis said.The NFL has managed to move past controversies. You rarely hear about players kneeling during the national anthem anymore, and fans seem determined to largely ignore many issues that plague the sport, such as CTE and domestic abuse. Will Smith's 2015 movie "Concussion" about the dangers of the sport didn't change things, nor did the 2014 video of Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée. The league has been able to make brief gestures toward the issues and then wait out the clock until the discussion moves on."It's the national pastime," Lewis said. "The NFL tied itself into the American self-image, tied itself into the Americana in a way that really only baseball decades ago was able to do. It's the last mass event — it's the last mass gathering on television that we have."The pace of the NFL's ratings growth over the past few years won't last forever. In part, the league's recent successes have just been making up for a downturn during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons. The explanation at the time for those declines was that Donald Trump was taking a lot of attention and the players were boring.If and when some of the teams get less interesting, the guys on the field less compelling, and Taylor Swift stops coming to games, some viewers will scale back watching or at least stop scaling up. Next year, football won't get the boost it got from the strike-induced void of new content. But even if things aren't as good for the NFL, they're still going to be pretty good — and a lot better, ratings-wise, than anything else.Emily Stewart is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, writing about business and the economy.Read the original article on Business Insider

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