PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- 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.
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.