PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The NFL just laughs at television's ratings problems.
On Sunday, the National Football League got an average of 8.5 million people to watch its preseason Hall of Fame Game between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills on NBC. The sloppy 17-10 win for the Giants saw audience numbers slide more than 20% from the 2013 Hall of Fame Game, which would make the show runners of just about any other program nervous about their future with the network.
But the NFL doesn't offer just any program: It's offering a near-guaranteed prime-time ratings win with every game. The audience for this early preseason matchup filled with backup players auditioning for roster spots and playing to an irrelevant result was watched by more people than any other program on television Sunday night. It beat CBS' 60 Minutes (8 million viewers) and absolutely flattened CBS' Big Brother and Unforgettable (6.5 million and 5.7 million viewers, respectively); Fox's The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad reruns (roughly 2 million apiece); and ABC's Wipeout and Rising Star (3.7 million each).
There wasn't a whole lot of refuge to be found on cable and satellite, either. HBO's True Blood only brought in 3.4 million viewers while the biggest multichannel show of the night -- TNT's The Last Ship -- only managed 4.1 million viewers. By comparison, a NASCAR race earlier that afternoon on ESPN averaged 4.3 million viewers.
Maybe there's somebody at NFL headquarters who's upset that the Giants and Bills couldn't generate as much interest as the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins did when they drew more than 10 million viewers for last year's Hall of Fame Game. 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, 8.5 million viewers is almost anemic. However, that's more than the roughly 8 million viewers that 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.
Also, keep in mind that this year's Hall of Fame Game's 2.8 rating among the coveted 18-49 was nearly 50% higher than that of Big Brother, more than double that of True Blood and nearly three times that of 60 Minutes. Basically, young viewers love football and don't deem many other programs -- or sports -- worthy of their time. The average 17.8 million fans who tuned into NFL games last fall couldn't muster similar enthusiasm for National Basketball Association matchups (1.4 million per game), Major League Baseball games (690,000 per game) or National Hockey League faceoffs (500,000 per game).
Even when fans could be bothered, the average 17.7 million who watched the NBA Finals was about half the audience the NFL drew for each of its conference finals. In perhaps the most grievous insult to their intelligence, they listened to soccer fans tell them that global "football" was better not only because the U.S. team averaged 18.3 million viewers for their World Cup matches, but because the World Cup final drew a U.S.-record 29.2 million viewers. Did they forget that the NFC Championship alone drew 55.6 million viewers earlier this year? Or that the Super Bowl drew 111.5 million viewers?
This is a league that 205 million unique U.S. viewers tuned into at some point last fall. It's one that 80% of U.S. television households had on their screens for at least some small span of time in 2013. Surely the NFL and its broadcast partners at NBC would treat its first game of 2013 with the excitement it deserves.
Even the preseason has more drawing power than its detractors suggest. 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.
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 the 2013 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.
Even if this year's Hall of Fame Game was evidence of preseason football's continued ratings decline, NFL preseason broadcasts are sinking more slowly than just about anything else on television. 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 paying $1 billion for its last year of the NFL Sunday Ticket package for highlights and out-of-town games because it knows both 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.
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 in 2013 -- 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 equalled 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.
The NFL could return a year from now and pull out all the stops for its preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game, but it's far more likely to maintain the status quo. If the league and its network partners crushing the competition with minimal effort, why should they cut into their profits just to point viewers toward a game they're likely going to watch anyway?
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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