For years, the National Football League has been nearly synonymous with scandal. Season after season has been marred by controversy, from domestic violence cases and child abuse charges to media firestorms about deflated footballs. The league continues to face serious questions about player concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease resulting from repeated blows to the head that has been linked to memory loss, erratic behavior, early onset dementia, depression and suicidality.
Stars from Michael Vick to Ben Roethlisberger to Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to even Tom Brady have been disgraced or tarnished by headline-grabbing cases. And a steady stream of lesser-known players have been suspended for violations of the league’s policies on substance abuse, performance-enhancing drugs or personal conduct. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was paid $32 million in 2015, has been criticized fiercely for his handling of many of the scandals.
By the standard of the last few years, the start to this latest NFL season has been relatively scandal-free. New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for one game for domestic violence. Brady is serving a four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate. And while Colin Kaepernick’s political protest has sparked debate, it’s not the type of talk show chatter that presents a threat to the league as a whole.
Then again, past scandals clearly haven’t hurt the league. Despite all those headline-grabbing cases, watching football in the fall and winter remains a religion for millions, and the NFL’s ratings and revenues certainly haven’t suffered.
The league’s revenues in 2005 totaled $6.16 billion, according to the website Statista. Five years later, when league revenue had climbed to a reported $8.5 billion, Goodell laid out an ambitious goal: to triple annual revenue to $25 billion by 2027. The league is on track to get there. The majority of the league’s revenue comes from television networks for broadcast license and rights fees. ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and ESPN fork over the bundles of cash because ratings continue to go up. “Thanks to Goodell’s masterful negotiation of lucrative television rights deals as well as the enhancement of several new league income streams, the NFL’s total revenues are projected to surpass $13.3 billion this year, up more than 50% from 2010,” Jason Belzer wrote at Forbes early this year.
While the 2016 NFL opening weekend ratings were down from last year, the league has still managed to grow its audience long-term in an age of ever more fragmented television viewership. Check the ratings for NFL games in prime time and you’ll find that the number of football viewers generally dwarfs everything else. The first Thursday Night Football game of the season, a rematch of the Carolina Panthers-Denver Broncos Super Bowl that aired on NBC, captured 25.2 million viewers, down from last year’s opener but still about five times as many people as tuned in to CBS that night.
Across all games in 2015 FOX drew an average of 20.75 million viewers, up from 20.73 in 2014 and 19.1 million in 2009. CBS NFL Sunday telecasts reported 19.1 million average viewers in 2015, up from 18.7 million in 2014. And Thursday Night Football averaged 13 million viewers in 2015, up 6 percent from the 12.3 million average in 2014. NBC’s Sunday Night Football slate drew 22.5 million viewers in 2015, the best viewership for the NFL’s prime time standalone package in 19 years.
Given the torrent of negative headlines the league has faced in recent years, it might have been reasonable to expect those numbers to dip — that the sport would feel a little bit of pain, even temporarily. But come kickoff time, those issues all seem to fade away as we return to our sofas or take a seat at the bar to watch the games and cheer for our teams. Maybe it’s simple escapism. We all need a few hours to tune out world’s problems and sit back, drink a beer or two and watch premier athletes do their thing.
Whatever the reason, Americans vote with their eyeballs and wallets. And the NFL keeps winning the big money game.