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How the NFL came roaring back this season

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

After two seasons of TV ratings declines and doom-and-gloom headlines, the NFL came roaring back in its 2018 season. Ratings for regular season games were up 5% on average, according to Nielsen and the NFL.

The greatest gain (+8%) was for ESPN’s Monday Night Football window, which may surprise some who criticized the new MNF broadcasting trio this season, including color commentator Jason Witten. It helped that ESPN got a slate of good games.

The 5% figure does not even take into account streaming—this year the league sold streaming packages to Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, AT&T DirecTV Now, and Verizon-owned Yahoo Sports, among others. The league says that streaming viewership rose 86%.

In other words: The NFL is not dead or dying or “over.”

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) reacts toward fans in the stands after an NFL divisional football playoff game in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. The Chiefs defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-13. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

So, what brought back the eyeballs?

In hindsight, it is difficult to deny that the national anthem kneeling controversy, and President Trump’s continued public attacks on the NFL, played a major role in the temporary drop in ratings. Politics may not have been the biggest factor in the NFL’s two seasons from hell, but it certainly looks like it was a factor.

Trump has not tweeted about the NFL since September, when Nike released its Colin Kaepernick ad campaign. Once the season got underway, the kneeling controversy faded and Trump fell silent.

As the political controversy died down, focus returned to the action on the field. The NFL had a strong season of exciting games. It was a record year for offense, measured by total points scored and total touchdowns in the season. Football fans like seeing touchdowns.

It also may have helped that NFL referees called “roughing the passer” penalties aggressively as an obvious measure to protect star quarterbacks. That succeeded in keeping starting QBs on the field, and indeed, 2018-2019 was the season of young star quarterbacks.

As ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick told Yahoo Finance early in the season, “Goff, Mahomes, Mayfield... will sustain interest throughout the year. Do you think it's coincidence that one of the most controversial rule changes this year involves protection of QBs?” L.A. Rams starting QB Jared Goff made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Kansas City Chiefs starter Patrick Mahomes went as far as the AFC Championship, and his presence helped make it the second-most watched AFC Championship in 42 years.

It’s uncertain whether Super Bowl 53 will bring record ratings, partly due to the matchup. The Patriots are returning to the big game for the third straight year, and the Rams relocated to Los Angeles three seasons ago, ditching St. Louis fans. Demand for Super Bowl tickets on the secondary market has been weak.

But the regular season bump is still a return to form that the NFL can tout as a win. It is an indication that the NFL is not going anywhere, and never was. CFRA Research media analyst Tuna Amobi, in a Jan. 22 note, called the ratings lift “an encouraging reversal” and added, “Despite industrywide declines in television ratings over the past few years, NFL games have consistently maintained their dominant position among all television audiences.”

Yes, live sports viewing habits are changing (and some big brands are deciding they don’t need to spend $5 million on a 30-second in-game ad anymore), but not as rapidly as cord-cutters would like. The live-sports streaming revolution is simmering, not yet boiling. And the NFL is still the king of eyeballs when it comes to live sports television in America.