January 29, 2023
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NFL preseason ratings illustrate the power of the league: Sports on TV

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For many years, I’ve called NFL preseason games little more than glorified scrimmages. Fake games. Meaningless exhibitions. A scam by owners to sell tickets and concessions to a hyped-up practice between two teams.

And while that’s obviously glib exaggeration — season-ending injuries are still devastating even in a game that doesn’t count, perhaps more so — the preseason is a useful illustration of the power of the NFL as a television product.

On Saturday, four preseason games aired live nationally on the NFL Network. Here’s how their viewership fared:

2022 NFL Network Preseason Week 1

Game Kickoff Viewership


7 p.m.

2.15 million


4 p.m.

1.88 million


9 p.m.

1.66 million


1 p.m.

1.41 million

That’s an average of 1.77 million viewers for Week 1 of the 2022 preseason. A year ago, the four NFL Network preseason games in the same windows averaged a combined 1.5 million.

A handful of live sports broadcasts last week beat or rivaled those numbers. Baseball’s “Field of Dreams” game from Iowa on Fox averaged 3.1 million. MLB’s Saturday night games on Fox averaged just over 2 million. The PGA Tour’s FedEx St. Jude Championship did 2.96 million on NBC. NASCAR at Richmond averaged 2.39 million on USA Network.

Those are all fine numbers amid the current chaotic circumstances of U.S. television industry and the radically shifting viewer habits with linear and streaming TV consumption.

In fact, the NFL numbers look like the rest of sports viewership last week — but these are games that do not count.

Let that sink in: Millions tuned in to watch a blend of rookies, no-name free agents, recent USFL-ers, career back-ups, and briefly some stars (maybe) playing games that do not count in the standings or record books. The games serve as tune-ups for veterans, additional game film for coaches, a last shot for bubble players, and a cash grab for teams who typically bundle preseason games with regular season for season-ticket buyers.

Hardcore fans white-knuckle these games hoping key players aren’t lost to injury (as players and coaches do, too). Injuries already have cut short the season, for the whole year or part of it, for some players including Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and Browns starting center Nick Harris.

Three other NFL preseason games last week on NFL Network (one on Thursday, two on Friday) each averaged more than 1 million viewers. Several tape-delayed games averaged hundreds of thousands of viewers.

We’re less than a month away from the regular season kicking off but we have two more weeks of preseason games — starting with Bears-Seahawks at 8 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN.

In the 2021 regular season, NFL games had recovered from their modest pandemic declines and averaged 17.1 million viewers. With the addition of a 17th regular season game for every team starting last season, the NFL enjoyed a record $11 billion in total revenue. TV rights are the bulk of that money.

Nothing on TV comes close to what the NFL enjoys with eyeballs in the regular season and playoffs, not in sports, not among prestige scripted shows, nor among the endless shouty cable news talking heads in primetime. The top non-NFL programming in last year’s television season by total viewers was “NCIS,” which averaged 10.9 million on CBS (a 13 percent decline year over year).

That’s why the NFL was able to land $113 billion in media rights deals over the next 11 seasons.

So far in 2022, 14 of the top 15 live sporting events on U.S. television were last season’s NFL playoff games, including 100 million for the Super Bowl in February. The top 50 such broadcasts were half NFL games, per Sports Media Watch. Just incredible domination, regardless of whether you love pro football or consider it an immoral bloodsport.

The NFL’s ratings domination doesn’t mean the rest of live sports are without much value. Each sport reaches a different set of demographics, and the Nielsen ratings exist to slice and dice which demos are watching what. The networks use that data to set advertising rates, and that money ultimately helps fuel what they will pay in media rights for programming.

Which is why this week’s news that the WNBA had great viewership this season within its context is great. It doesn’t have to be the NFL to be successful. Same with the other legacy major leagues, which all trail the NFL viewership by considerable margins (which is, in part, because the NFL has far less live game inventory).

It’s important context to note that the preseason is a slightly different creature. Teams sell their preseason games rights locally — for example, the Detroit Lions in 2015 inked a deal with local Fox affiliate WJBK to become their preseason flagship broadcaster, with a network of in-state stations for syndication — while the NFL sells the regular season and playoffs nationally to the major broadcasters (and now Amazon Prime Video). The locally aired preseason games generally have smaller audiences than those that air nationally on the NFL Network, Fox, CBS or Amazon.

The major networks that carry preseason games are carrying the local broadcasts, which teams and their in-market network partners produce.

The NFL’s big money and big audiences come when the regular season begins. We don’t get to the real games until the L.A. Rams host the Buffalo Bills at 8:20 p.m., Sept. 8, on NBC.

All viewership data is from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics, and other metrics via the TV networks, Nielsen, Sports Media Watch, ShowBuzz Daily and the leagues. All times Eastern unless otherwise noted.

(Photo: Mark Konezny / USA Today)

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