PORTLAND, Ore. (MainStreet) The NFL preseason is a hated, unwatchable audition with irrelevant results ... unless you're one of the millions of people watching it.
The National Football League kicks off its preseason on Sunday in Canton, Ohio, with the Hall of Fame Game between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills. It's a game that much of the U.S. will boast about ignoring or loathing, but it's a football game airing at a time most of the nation its tuning out its soon-to-be eliminated Major League Baseball teams and won't see its college football teams take the field until the end of the month.
When the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins came to Canton for last year's Hall of Fame Game, more than 10 million viewers watched the game on NBC. For a league that drew 11.7 million viewers to watch a Pro Bowl with no kickoffs, a shorter play clock and a whole lot of two-minute warnings, 10 million viewers is on the low side. But that's more than the roughly 8 million viewers Thursday Night Football averaged on the NFL Network. That was good enough to get CBS to pay $275 million for just one season of Thursday Night Football this year.
The late summer is a bleak void for sports and television, but the NFL still knows how to get people to tune in. While NBC was getting 10 million viewers to watch football players who may never see a down of regular-season action, CBS struggled to get 6.6 million people to watch home-grown, heavily bankrolled summer series including Big Brother and Unforgettable. By the end of last August, Sunday night preseason games were still drawing more than 8 million viewers and serving as the most-watched programs in their time slot. That same weekend, the NFL's full slate of preseason games pulverized competitors, with one out of every three viewers in Pittsburgh watching the Steelers (and tripling the ratings of the pennant-chasing Pittsburgh Pirates), a quarter of all Seattle viewers catching the Seahawks and Tennessee Titans fans outnumbering those watching Vanderbilt football.
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Even when the NFL loses a preseason Sunday, it finds a way to win. A mid-August airing of a matchup between the Giants and Indianapolis Colts in Fox averaged only 5.6 million viewers and had a smaller audience that CBS' Big Brother (6.5 million). But it dominated among adults 18-49 and gave Fox a big win among that demographic for the night.
And that's with preseason numbers down slightly from the season before. While the NFL's preseason doesn't bring in the dominant 17.6 million viewers that NFL games averaged during last year's regular season, they're still stronger than just about anything they're up against in August, and the networks know it. This year, eight NFL preseason games are airing nationally on Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN and will likely fair just as well on cable and satellite as they do on broadcast television.
Last year, a preseason game between the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers that aired on ESPN on a Monday Night (Aug. 20) drew 5.6 million viewers or equal to what that preseason Sunday game between the Colts and drew on Fox. In the multichannel universe, however, that was enough to beat the audience of USA's second-place WWE Monday Night Raw by more than 1 million viewers. It was 25% more than USA could manage and, by regular-season standards, it was a throwaway.
Standard thinking is that the networks pay huge sums for NFL broadcast rights to reap the huge sums the playoffs bring in and for a rotating shot at airing the Super Bowl. That isn't false, but it also isn't the whole story. Fox, CBS and NBC have agreed to pay the NFL $28 billion or roughly $1 billion a year for broadcast rights through 2022 because it guarantees wins on just about any night of the week. CBS just plunked down $275 million to broadcast one season of Thursday Night Football this year because NBC's Must-See TV is dead and Thursdays are up for grabs. ESPN pays $1.9 million each year or more than double what any network pays for a season of Major League Baseball just to host Monday Night Football and guarantee itself a weekly win for about 17 weeks out of the year. DirecTV is on the last year of a $1 billion-a-year deal with the NFL for its Sunday Ticket package for highlights and out-of-town games because it knows fans and fantasy league players alike will watch NFL games regardless of who is playing.
That stretches into the preseason and is a big reason why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL owners and other have entertained expanding the regular season and shrinking the preseason. If NBC can draw 10 million viewers to watch an NFL game in early August that means absolutely nothing, imagine how many people would tune in to a mid-August matchup that actually counted.
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Major League Baseball would like to have you believe that its matchups are just heating up in August and that this is the time to tune in. But its average audience of just 700,000 last year including just 1.1 million on average for ESPN's nationally televised games makes even an audience of 5 million for football seem overwhelming by comparison. Meanwhile, college football's August slate produced just two games with NFL-quality numbers: A Georgia-Clemson matchup on ABC (8.1 million viewers) and Alabama-Virginia Tech on ESPN (5 million).
Even then, it didn't fare well against the NFL. The league's final preseason matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings on NBC on Aug. 29 last year drew 8.1 million, which not only equaled ESPN's best Saturday college game, but absolutely trounced the Thursday audience of 3.6 million who watched North Carolina-South Carolina on ESPN that night and the 2.7 million who watched the Mississippi-Vanderbilt game that followed.
Football is back, and even its preseason games are heavy hitters.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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By Jason Notte