With more ways for fans to stream NFL games, this season viewership via digital is up a striking 65% from a year ago, the league is reporting.
Through four weeks of the season, the average game minute has been seen by 326,000 viewers per game window across the various platforms on which the NFL now makes games available.
Those big numbers seem startling, especially because the recent headlines have shown NFL TV viewership in decline. Was it the National Anthem controversy? Too many concussions? Too many thugs? Too many ads?
Maybe it was just shifting fan viewing habits?
The new online numbers suggest that younger, or at least more digitally adept viewers, may be turning away from TV and toward online viewing. Compared to last year, streaming on phones is up an astounding 147%. Streaming via TV devices -- where there are more restrictions -- is up 54%.
On an NFL blog, Kevin LaForce, the league’s senior vice president for media strategy and business development, says, "There are younger people who have grown up with digital devices. They reach for digital first. This helps connect us with them."
The NFL has always built its power by offering lots of games on the most widely available medium: television. While that is unlikely to change, the league seems intent on driving fans to digital, too, no longer seeing it as a kind of add-on to core broadcasts that now show up on any given Sunday, Monday and Thursday at the very least.
This season, Sunday afternoon local games and all prime-time contests can be seen on the NFL.com app or Verizon-owned properties like Yahoo Sports. The broadcast networks have also made it easier to stream games via their authenticated channels.
But as fans know, there are weird exceptions often harder to figure than new NFL officiating rules: You may be able to watch a game on your cell phone or iPad, but not stream it to your TV. And the availability of games online is dictated by which games your local TV station is airing. If you’re an Indianapolis Colts fan, for example, you probably can’t watch them on your phone in Seattle.
Still, options are better than they used to be. "If fans know they can easily access our games on all of their devices, I think we're going to see continued growth at a nice pace," LaForce says on the blog.
Increased viewership does seem to be catching on. TV ratings are also up, 3% through the first four weeks of the season, quite a turnaround from 2017, when regular-season ratings were down 9% versus the previous season to average 14.9 million viewers.
"That is a core [tenet] of our media philosophy for decades. We still believe in the value of games on live TV,” LaForce says.
Breitbart News, the right-wing website, reports network executives say that among many reasons for the rise in ratings, the lack of protests is helping.
“While the executives don’t attribute the entire reason for the ratings improvement to the relative absence of protests,” the site suggests, “the fact that they mention it at all is an important development.”