National Football League television viewership increases 5% for 2019 regular season

Key Points
  • The NFL says it increased its average TV viewership to 16.5 million per game, a rise from the 15.8 million viewers it averaged last year.
  • NFL games finished with 47 of the top 50 telecasts during the season.
Will NFL's success cause league to renegotiate current TV deals?
Will NFL's success cause league to renegotiate current TV deals?

The National Football League is celebrating another victory as the league finished its 100th regular season with a 5% gain in average viewership compared to last season, according to data provided to CNBC.

For the second consecutive season, the NFL increased its average TV viewership, improving to 16.5 million per game, and expecting to finish with more than 180 million in total viewers for the 2019 regular season.

Last year, the league averaged 15.8 million viewers and league games finished with 46 of the top 50 telecasts during the season. This season, NFL games finished with 47 of the top 50 telecasts.

The rebound in viewership certainly helps the league as it is hoping to renegotiate media deals with TV partners CBS, FOX, NBC, ESPN and DirecTV. Dating back to the 2016 season, the league suffered a fall in ratings and even experienced a 9.7% drop in viewership for the 2017 season.

The controversy surrounding players kneeling during the national anthem, which led to political criticism mostly from President Donald Trump, was partly to blame for the ratings decline. But one network executive added that the lack of stars hurt ratings, too.

The departure of quarterback Peyton Manning, who retired after he led the Denver Broncos to a 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, was also described as a blow to NFL television ratings, the executive, who asked not to be identified, said.

The belief is Manning's star power and likability among NFL fans allowed networks to benefit from ratings as games involving the Indianapolis Colts, where Manning played from 1998-2011, and the Broncos were highly rated contests. After Manning's exit, national games featuring the two teams no longer appealed to NFL audiences, the executive said.

Currently, the league is benefiting from younger stars like Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, an MVP candidate. The network executive said Kansas City Chiefs games also finished strong, as those games featured star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

The Dallas Cowboys continue to be a TV hit, too. The Cowboys' 26-15 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving Day averaged 32.6 million viewers, the most-viewed NFL game this season, with their 13-9 loss in Week 12 to the New England Patriots averaging 29.5 million viewers, the second most-viewed contest.

Last season the Cowboys were also featured in the most-viewed NFL game (averaged 30.5 million), a 31-23 victory over the Washington Redskins in Week 12.

Sunday night delight

NBC Sports Group released its ratings for the 2019 season, announcing average viewership for the Sunday Night Football package reached 20.5 million, its highest for the series since 2015, and up from 19.6 million in 2018, the network said, providing data from Nielsen in its media release.

The regular season finale between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, which determined the NFC West title, averaged 23.3 million viewers, helping SNF retain its dominance as the No. 1 primetime show on TV for the ninth consecutive year.

"With exciting games featuring compelling new stars emerging at quarterback, coupled with veterans at the position who rank among the best in history, we've had a terrific season with viewership increases across the board," Pete Bevacqua, president of NBC Sports Group, said in a statement.

The NFL is expected to release its full viewership report, including digital stats, this week.

Disclosure: NBC Sports, which shares parent NBCUniversal with CNBC, broadcasts NFL games.