Before playoff mode officially engages, the NFL may want to celebrate its regular season results. Overall the NFL was up 5 percent and averaged 16.5 million viewers (television only) across all networks in 2019. From its kickoff, the NFL made up 47 of the top 50 most-watched telecasts.
With a last-minute assist from the thrilling, down-to-the-wire Seahawks-49ers game, which drew 23.3 million viewers across all platforms, NBC's Sunday Night Football ended the year with a 20.5 million viewership average. The four-year high benefited from having eight of the 10 most-watched primetime shows between September 5-December 29. This was highlighted by the following viewership averages (television only):
Cowboys-Saints, Sep. 29 - 24.2 million
Vikings-Cowboys, Nov. 10 - 23.1 million
49ers-Seahawks, Dec. 19 - 22.8 million
Steelers-Patriots, Sep. 8 - 22.3 million
Packers-Bears, Sep. 5 - 22.2 million
FOX, which routinely broadcasts the top games of the week with its NFC package and now Thursday Night Football, saw a 7 percent increase over 2018. FOX concluded the season with its best viewership in three years with a 19.2 million average. Its highlighted America's Game of the Week matchups drew a 24.4 million average. That's up 10 percent from a year ago.
Across FOX and NFL Network, Thursday Night Football rose to 14.9 million viewers, up 6 percent year-over-year.
The Thursday night games have become much closer in quality to Sunday Night Football than the Monday Night Football pairings. Yet, ESPN's MNF joined the other networks with increases. Monday Night Football was the No. 1 show on cable, coming in up 8 percent year-over-year, averaging 12.6 million viewers weekly.
Finally, it's the same, satisfying results for CBS. Its numbers were up four percent to 17.2 million viewers, according to Michael McCarthy. Primarily airing AFC games is no longer the short end of the stick. The AFC now consists of the league's two most exciting players in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, a superstar in Deshaun Watson, the intriguing Browns, and still has the Patriots and Steelers in its conference. For what it's worth, the network has vastly improved its coverage with Tony Romo in the booth and Nate Burleson in the studio.
Everything has gone right for the NFL this season. It's been entertaining, heart-racing, and got better by the week. All of the game's biggest stars are in contention, the games are thrilling, there is new blood, parity, and the Patriots dominance -- the NFL's sole issue -- finally looks to be ending.
All of this bodes well for the playoffs, which project to be riveting. Now, there could be a slight viewership decline early on. The biggest draw in sports, the Dallas Cowboys, are not involved. Therefore, the two massive numbers they gave the league in last year's postseason shouldn't be expected. Great potential Conference Championship matchups, the Patriots in the Wild Card Round for the first time in a decade, and likely a better Super Bowl game should soften that blow.
Looking ahead to next season, the NFL should be down in viewership. Not for any reason other than it will be an election year. Sundays will be more competitive and the Thursday and Monday games will go head-to-head with the increased interest in political programming. But as far as the 2019-20 NFL season, it will go down as an overwhelming success.