The ratings are in, and the 2021 NFL regular season was the most-watched season in the last six years, The season averaged a remarkable average of 17 million viewers tuning into each game.
This number represents a 10% ratings jump from last season, all while vying for attention during a presidential election and a global pandemic. Although it was expected that this year’s numbers would be higher because there was no election this year, such a dramatic jump was not anticipated.
“Certainly 2020 was a unique year in a lot of different ways,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, “but when you think about [the 2021] season with full stadiums and the game itself, it was an awesome regular season.”
NFL ratings records: the best weeks of the season
Over the course of the regular season, there were 22 games that accumulated over 20 million viewers. The six most viewed games of the regular season were:
- Week 12: Las Vegas Raiders vs Dallas Cowboys–37.84 million views
- Week 16: Cleveland Browns vs Green Bay Packers–28.59 million views
- Week 11: Dallas Cowboys vs Kansas City Chiefs–28.06 million views
- Week 17: Arizona Cardinals vs Dallas Cowboys–26.79 million views
- Week 12: Chicago Bears vs Detroit Lions–26.75 million views
- Week 4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs New England Patriots–26.75 million views
Just looking at this list, one thing is clear: America sure does love the Cowboys. Of the 22 games mentioned that accumulated over 20 million viewers, eight of them belong to the Cowboys. Ultimately, almost 50% of all the Cowboys’ games surpassed the 20 million view mark.
Why a sudden influx of viewers?
Whenever viewership ratings surge like the NFL did this season, it’s hard to pinpoint one single reason why. Actually, it’s more likely a conglomerate of reasons that all culminate in a total ratings boost.
One of these reasons is simple: the games played this year were some of the closest games the NFL has ever seen.
During the 2021 NFL regular season, there were 34 games decided by a game-winning score on the final play. That is the most in a single season in NFL history. Additionally, 49 games were decided by a game-winning score in the final minute of regulation or overtime. That ties the previous single-season record.
Close games not only help with viewer retention, but it drives more fans to switch to games they wouldn’t have otherwise watched.
Games are easier to find than ever before
Another possible reason for NFL ratings success this year is the network/streaming service variety they offered their viewers. On any given Thursday, Sunday, or Monday during the season, games were available across a number of platforms, including:
- CBS Network
- FOX Network
- NBC Network
- ESPN 2
- ESPN + (Streaming)
- Paramount + (Streaming)
- Amazon Prime Video (Streaming)
- Peacock (Streaming)
CBS saw a 9% increase in viewers over last season, averaging 18.09 viewers per game in 2021. Although Fox’s Sunday games only increased by 2%, averaging 18.57 million, the network had five of the 10-most watched games of 2021.
Similarly, ESPN’s Monday Night Football averaged 14.18 million viewers, with its new ManningCast averaging 1.6 million views.
Looking ahead to 2022
NFL viewership numbers for 2021 are pretty thrilling. Accordingly, the league, networks, and streaming services can comfortably expect increases again next season.
Thanks to the bevy of streaming services offered, over 370 billion minutes of NFL action streamed during the regular season. This marks the second-highest total of all time, behind 2015.
Marc Ganis, the co-founder of the Chicago-based consulting group Sportscorp sees an incredible relationship between the NFL and streaming services, saying:
“What we have seen with the NFL and streaming is what we saw with the NFL and cable and satellite TV, which is watching the games is appointment television. People will find games on whatever platform they’re on. That makes it enormously valuable to the streamers. Because one of the things streamers need is a reason for people to go to them in the first place.”
The NFL has been and apparently will always be television-by-appointment. It’ll be interesting to see how the ratings numbers continue to grow in the coming years.