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NFL games score gains for 2nd straight season

The National Football League closed its centennial regular season with a growth of almost 5% in its audience for televised games.

Citing data from Nielsen, the pro football league reported that contest coverage across CBS (US), FOX (US), NBC (US), ESPN (US) and its in-house NFL Network (US) averaged 16.5 million viewers, a 4.7% advance from 15.8 million in 2018. The delivery, fueled by increases by each of its four primary carriers, came on top of a 6% gain in 2018.

The 2019 campaign was the most-watched regular season since 2016, when NFL games also posted an average audience of 16.5 million. The league averaged 17.9 million viewers during 2015, before sustaining erosion the following two seasons from what observers attributed to several dynamics, including injuries to and the retirement of notable players; concerns over the long-term effects of concussions; and the furor over players kneeling during the national anthem in protest against various social injustices.

Digitally, the 2019 season was the NFL's best to date, with viewership across all NFL platforms, Verizon Communications Inc.'s wireless offerings and the rights-holders' own services, up 51% to 487,000 viewers on average from 2018. Tacking on the digital audience, NFL games grew 5% to 16.7 million viewers overall. However, digital viewing accounted for just 2.9% of the 16.7 million combined game audience in 2019.

Amazon.com Inc.'s Prime Video provided streaming simulcasts of 11 "Thursday Night Football" contests, and much noise has been made about the possibility of a tech player perhaps securing a major games package during the next rights cycle.

All told, the NFL reported its games reached 182 million viewers during the 2019 season, reaffirming its linear TV leadership position. Although live audiences for entertainment programming on broadcast and cable have continued to drop significantly as subscription video-on-demand services and delayed viewing options have gained popularity, NFL games still represent 47 of the 50 most-watched programs since September.

On a percentage basis, ESPN’s "Monday Night Football" tallied the largest advance, registering a 7.9% improvement to 12.6 million viewers in 2019 from 11.7 million the prior season. ESPN Deportes (US) scored a 21% jump to 102,000 viewers, making 2019 its most-watched "MNF" season.

NBC's "Sunday Night Football" package saw a total audience delivery average, including linear plus digital, of 20.5 million, up 4.6% from 19.6 million in 2018. FOX's "Thursday Night Football" and Sunday games grew 6.7% to an average of 19.2 million viewers, from just over 18.0 million in 2018.

Meanwhile, CBS recorded a 4% increase to 17.2 million viewers on average and also tackled the biggest audience of the regular season, with 32.6 million viewers watching the Dallas-Buffalo game on Thanksgiving.

The NFL kicks off its playoffs with four Wild Card games this weekend.