The NFL season still feels relatively new — perhaps because there still are a pack of unbeaten teams remaining — but the reality is that it is rumbling Gronk-like past the midpoint and headed toward the end zone.
The switch of the Thursday night NFL package from CBS to the NFL Network, which occurred for Thursday night’s Browns-Bengals matchup, signals the unofficial arrival of the season’s second half.
And if there are questions — and there are many — as to why Roger Goodell makes nearly $50 million per year while overseeing a multitude of public-relations embarrassments in the past year, the first and perhaps only argument on his behalf is this:
Whether in spite of him or not, the NFL remains breathtakingly popular, as a sport and a television show.
Last year, the NFL had its most successful season yet in terms of television viewership, drawing more than 202 million unique viewers over the course of the entire season. That number represents an astounding 80 percent of all television homes. The NFL accounted for the top 20 and 45 of the 50 most-watched shows last fall, and it was the No. 1 show in all 17 weeks of the season. Regular-season games televised nationally averaged 17.6 million viewers, making it the second most-watched season ever after 2010 (17.9 million viewers on average).
Midway through this season, the trends suggest that ratings and viewership numbers will trump even last year’s. Thursday Night Football is up 6 percent in viewership this year from the same date a year ago, averaging 17.6 million viewers, up from 16.7 million last year. Overall, CBS is averaging 18.5 million viewers for its NFL telecasts, which would be the highest for the AFC game package in 29 years. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” continues to be a ratings behemoth, averaging 23.6 million viewers this season, making it the top-ranked program on television this fall. ESPN is averaging 13.2 million viewers for its “Monday Night Football” telecasts.
Fox also has seen an uptick in its NFL viewership from a season ago and is coming off its best week of the season. Sunday’s Cowboys-Seahawks matchup was the most-watched NFL game of the year, averaging 29.4 million viewers. That topped the Patriots-Steelers opener on CBS, which drew 27.4 million viewers on a Thursday night.
Fox won the week in prime time as well, averaging 13 million viewers due in large part to the World Series. Fox was more than happy with its baseball ratings – the decisive Game 5 Sunday drew 17.2 million viewers, aided immensely by the New York market tuning in to watch the Mets — and yet that game still drew a smaller audience than Seahawks-Cowboys, Broncos-Packers (23 million on NBC) and Patriots-Dolphins (17.5 million on Thursday night).
Locally, Patriots-Dolphins ranks as the team’s highest-rated game of the season, drawing a 45.9 household rating and a 62 share for the broadcast that aired on CBS and the NFL Network.
That household rating topped the season’s previous high of 44.6, set during the Week 6 victory over the Colts on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” The Patriots’ 34-27 victory over the Colts drew a higher share, however, at 64.6. It is the fourth-highest local household rating for a regular-season Patriots broadcast ever.
No. 1 on that list is the 2007 regular-season finale, a 38-35 victory over the Giants that secured a 16-0 record for the Patriots. That game, which had a 50.1 rating and a 75 share, was simulcast on Ch. 4, 5, 7 and the NFL Network. Those numbers have been perceived as out of reach, a perfect storm of the quest for an unbeaten regular season combining with the game airing on so many different outlets. The league bowed to pressure to make it available to fans who didn’t have the NFL Network, which was only available in 40 percent of homes at the time.
But if the Patriots somehow remain unbeaten this year until the regular-season finale, there is a reasonable chance that those 2007 ratings could be exceeded locally (the game drew 34.5 million viewers nationally). The NFL has grown in popularity since then, and just keeps doing so despite the imagine problem of its staggeringly well-compensated leader.
Pierce dabbles in TV
Paul Pierce has made more than $190 million in his NBA career and is in the first of a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, so when his stellar career does end, he can presumably afford to be choosy about what comes next. But the 38-year-old former Celtics star has long been considered someone who belonged on the short list of active players who possess the charisma and candor to transition to a television analyst role someday. Pierce apparently does have some level of curiosity about what life as a studio analyst is like — he’ll appear for the full half-hour on ESPN’s NBA Countdown pregame show Friday night at 7:30 before the Heat-Pacers and Rockets-Kings doubleheader . . . While Pierce is making a TV cameo, two former Celtics have recently begun careers at ESPN as analysts. The network said Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Andrew DeClerq have been added to the SEC Network’s roster for college basketball. Davis played four seasons for the Celtics and was key reserve on their 2008 championship team as a rookie after a stellar career at LSU. He has not retired from the NBA, but had ankle surgery in September and is a free agent. DeClercq played 95 games for the Celtics from 1997-99, spending 10 years in the NBA.
200 apply at WEEI
WEEI received approximately 200 applications for the opening on its Red Sox radio broadcast team, a spot that became available when Dave O’Brien moved over to NESN. The list of candidates has been narrowed to five – Lou Merloni is among them – with a partner for longtime Red Sox voice Joe Castiglione expected to be announced sometime before Thanksgiving.Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.