In 2017, I sat with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in training camp and we talked about the state of the league. We chewed on his upcoming Hall of Fame speech, batted around the idea of the NFL attempting to get a marketing foothold in China, and finished up chatting a bit about the declining TV ratings in sports, which at the time, was just beginning to hit the league.
Jones has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the marketing and television end of the NFL. On this particular occasion, he referenced a “golden zone” for the league when it came to U.S. television audiences. That area was bracketed between 17 million and 18 million. For the first part of that decade, the league had basically set up permanent residence in the zone. So much so, that from 2010-15, the NFL had fallen out of it only once, when average viewership was 16.6 million.
“When you’ve got over 17 million watching as an average, that’s a good benchmark [for television rights deals],” Jones said at the time. “Now, it may fluctuate depending on some different things, but you have something going pretty special when you can say that you’ve got more than 17 million people watching on an average. The question is how to continue growing with that moving forward.”
That exchange with Jones took on some importance this week. The NFL fell out of that golden zone for the past five years, causing some hand-wringing for the league and even some of the networks that shelled out massive amounts for rights deals. But everyone in that system applauded some good news this week: The league’s average 2021 regular-season viewership perked up considerably, jumping 10 percent from 15.6 million in 2020 to 17.1 million in 2021.
It’s important to first understand why the bounce matters before getting into what fueled it.
NFL wasn't immune to sportswide ratings dip
When Jones referenced the golden zone of viewers, he didn’t know the NFL — like many major sports' TV ratings — was about to hit a brick wall. There was already a ratings dip in 2016, although Jones and the league passed that off as an election cycle issue. But it got worse for the NFL, with average viewership tumbling to 15 million in 2017, setting off a roller coaster that ultimately made the 17 million mark look like a ceiling.
This was a problem for the league. In 2017, viewership declines were focused on kneeling players and political beefs, but network executives saw a fundamental problem that had nothing to do with the NFL’s social culture. Instead, the TV bigwigs were quietly and, eventually, loudly complaining to the NFL that it had oversaturated the regular season with games. Thursday night games felt like an albatross diluting the special chemistry of Sunday and Monday programming.
The NFL countered that other forms of digital consumption were growing and showcasing how the audience was transitioning. Basically, the league was asking for calm and patience, and suggested that the product would win out. The league and all the storylines it provided were too good for the dip to last. Even if a spate of down years suggested otherwise.
If some executives or even Jones were being honest, there was concern that maybe something was wrong that they couldn’t collectively see. Maybe the Thursday game was a bad idea. Or maybe other forms of entertainment or the consumption habits of Americans were destined to eat away at a seemingly bulletproof commodity. It was hard to be sure because few of the so-called “smartest people in the room” saw the ratings thud coming.
When you consider that five-year period of upheaval and the grain of uncertainty it represented, this week’s ratings news represents a much-needed booster shot for team owners and the league office. Not only does regaining a foothold in the golden zone suggest the NFL could be coming out of a rough period, it offers a shift in mindset. It transitions from trying to regain a television footing back to the fundamental aim Jones mentioned in 2017.
The NFL is a non-stop reality show
Consider a few parts of the ratings bounce back in 2021. This is something that happened despite another year of immense drama off the field.
There was the infamous Washington Football Team investigation that has pumped negative headlines since the summer. Not to mention the DEA raiding the franchise's practice facility as part of a probe of a team doctor. You had Jon Gruden’s resignation for racist and homophobic emails, followed by Gruden suing the league over leaks. Deshaun Watson has been dragging around like an anchor since March. Antonio Brown stripped half naked and ran off in a middle of a game. COVID-19 exploded. Urban Meyer imploded. The Las Vegas Raiders cut two first-round draft picks after one was involved in a horrific traffic fatality and the other threatened to shoot someone on social media. Oh, and the league settled a lawsuit with St. Louis for $790 million over the relocation lawsuit tied to the Rams.
But the product on the field? It was arguably as enjoyable to watch as ever in 2021, thanks to young quarterbacks taking over for a golden era that is gradually retiring, not to mention parity that made this season’s Super Bowl matchup about as unpredictable as ever. The game itself and the players who create it are covering for a lot of downside. Then again, you could argue that the downside — all the off-field drama — only increases interest in the league as a nonstop reality show.
Now pair that with the Cowboys, who are a big ratings draw even in down years. In this rebound, Jones’ team accounted for the two highest-rated broadcasts of the season and five of the top 10. Say what you want about Jerry Jones and his franchise, but when Dallas is competitive in a season like this one, every team owner is overjoyed about what it will mean for broadcast partners and advertisers.
In 2021, it meant getting back some of the league's television swagger. And while 17.1 million average viewers isn’t the mountaintop, it is the highest number the NFL has seen since 2015. Time will tell if the league can hold this course and start consistently expanding its audience again. But the other shore is finally in sight again for the NFL. And for the first time in a while, there is familiar wind in the sails.