- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Al Michaels has seen a lot in his legendary broadcast career. But as he prepares for Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals, the 77-year-old broadcaster says this year’s spectacle differs from past games that he has called. And it’s not just because of the teams involved.

“I can’t remember a time when the NFL has been hotter,” said Mr. Michaels, who will be calling the game for NBC.

That might be more than the typical Super Bowl week hyperbole. Sunday  night’s game marks the end of a jam-packed season that has been described as one of the league’s best in recent memory. Owners and league executives are riding high from a 10% jump in ratings and a return to pre-pandemic revenues, while fans got week after week of thrillers featuring heroics from familiar faces, such as Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, and emerging stars, including Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow.

The league has problems, to be sure. Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit looms, as does Congress’ investigation into the league’s probe of the recently renamed Washington Commanders. Playing during a pandemic remains a challenge, and the league was forced to postpone three games in the fall. 

But in the season just completed, the NFL offered more football than ever. This was the first year that featured teams playing 17 regular-season games across 18 weeks. It marked the second straight year that the playoff field was expanded from 12 to 14 teams.

The response? America’s appetite for football seems to keep growing.

“Look, like everything else in life, ratings are cyclical,” NBC Executive Producer Fred Gaudelli said on a conference call. “The quality of play, especially in the playoffs, has been unbelievable. It’s probably as exciting a playoffs as I can remember, and this is my 32nd year doing the NFL. … When you have events like that that more than live up to the hype, you’re going to get people in the tent and you’re going to get more people in the tent. 

“They tell more people, and before you know it, you have increased ratings.”

The NFL was on pace to have a big year before the postseason started. The regular season averaged 17.1 million views across television and digital platforms, the league’s highest mark since 2015. Ratings fell in three (2016, 2017 and 2020) of the past five seasons.

Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive, said the ratings increase reflects a “return to the new normal,” mirrored by society’s growing adjustment to the coronavirus pandemic. The NFL, he said, was the most popular sport before the threat of COVID-19, so it makes sense that the numbers would crawl back up as the nation moves beyond the pandemic.

Other factors contributed to growth. The NFL touted that 64% of its games this season were within one score in the fourth quarter, keeping viewers glued to their screens. A record 34 games were decided by a game-winning score on the final play, while 49 were decided in the final minute of regulation or overtime. Mr. Crakes noted that Nielsen, which measures ratings, now counts out-of-home viewing as part of its metrics — also boosting the number.

The NFL has expanded its menu of offerings, it seems, without oversaturating the average viewer. Experts noted that the overall number of games still lags those of the NBA, NHL and MLB, keeping its allure of must-see television.

“This is a really large slice of bread,” Mr. Crakes said, “with more than enough butter to cover it.”

The quality of this year’s playoffs strengthened the NFL’s resurgence. After a dull Wild Card weekend, the divisional and conference championship rounds made it all but impossible to look away. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo’s Josh Allen delivered one of the best shootouts in league history, with the lead changing three times in the final two minutes before overtime. The Rams’ Matthew Stafford drove down the field to help send Brady into retirement. Then there were the Bengals, a team just 2-14 two seasons ago, knocking off the Chiefs in the AFC Championship.

The entertainment value is why fans are more than willing to put up with all the NFL’s controversies. No matter how adamant some may be — plenty of viewers vowed to never watch another game after Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 — the league remains a force. The NFL accounted for 91 of the 100 most-watched telecasts this past year, a statistic that seems to be repeated every year.

But nothing captures the NFL’s overall appeal quite like the Super Bowl. A recent consumer survey estimated that only 14% of Americans plan on attending a game-day party this year, but that likely won’t stop the game from topping 100 million viewers — a mark reached in all but two of the past 12 years.

It’s perhaps the only event, of course, in which the advertisements are as much a part of the show as the on-the-field action. When it comes to advertising, the NFL continues to reach new heights.

According to Nielsen, the average price of a 30-second commercial is $6.5 million, and Fox Business reported that some spots were sold for $7 million. That’s a reversal from last year’s $100,000 dip (from $5.6 million in 2020 to $5.5 million in 2021) and is believed to be the biggest one-year price jump in league history. 

“This is one of the only opportunities that advertisers have to get a group of people actively engaged at one time,” said Michael Schaffer, the CEO for advertising agency Echo Factory. “The trend for advertising over the past few years or so has been much more fragmented. … That’s why the advertising industry has really continued to support [the NFL].”

Multimillion-dollar corporations aren’t the only ones paying up. The average price for a ticket on the secondary market to this year’s Super Bowl is $8,869, according to StubHub.

“The NFL is big enough that a lot of problems that society has can be reflected inside it,” Mr. Crakes said, “but that doesn’t mean people are going to stop watching people play the games any more than they’re going to stop going to work.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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