Meeting with a small group of reporters from ESPN and a few other outlets Sunday in Jacksonville, FL., before the Jaguars’ playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, Goodell pointed out that 20 of the 30 top-rated shows on TV in 2017 were NFL games.
“We always want ratings to go up, but we’re 37 of the top 50 shows, which is higher than ever,” Goodell said. “We’re likely to be the No. 1 show on Fox — excuse me, on all of television — the Fox Sunday afternoon game. Sunday night primetime is, for the seventh year in a row, the No. 1 show. Thursday Night Football is No. 2.”
A thicket of issues arose this season and compromised ratings — from national anthem protests to worsening concerns about head trauma to over-saturation of games in primetime. The kneeling protests became enough of a flashpoint that President Donald Trump parachuted in, blasting the NFL as “weak and out of control.” Total ratings declined almost 10% in the 2017 regular season, following an 8% drop in 2016, meaning 1.6M fewer viewers tuning in each contest.
Still and all, Goodell insisted, “I think dominance of the NFL in television is still very clear.” One reason Goodell might be able to stay sanguine is that he recently signed a five-year contract extension reportedly worth $200 million.
Given that all live and scripted TV programming is fading to some degree, advertisers and networks are still gravitating toward NFL games as safe harbor despite the backward momentum. Thursday Night Football, for example, long a problem child given its comparatively weak slate of games and injection of more prime-time action when few had demanded it, is nevertheless generating strong interest as the league looks to re-up after a series of one-year deals. Last season, CBS and NBC shared telecasts with the NFL Network, while Amazon grabbed streaming rights to 10 Thursday games.
The NFL and Verizon recently teamed on a new streaming deal that is no longer exclusive, which enabled NBC to bulk up its digital football offerings.
Goodell repeatedly has said the league and owners are committed to exploring digital frontiers, fueling speculation that a major tech company could walk away with a large chunk of game rights in 2022, when current deals with Fox, NBC and CBS expire.
“We always want to figure out how to expand our audiences, and that’s why we’re doing things with Verizon, we’re doing things … with Amazon,” Goodell said. “Those types of things are how we’re reaching more consumers and that’s a transition and that’s something that we’re putting a lot of focus on.”