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75 of 2021’s Top 100 Live TV Broadcasts Were NFL Games — What That Means for Streaming

Jeff Kotuby

We’re quickly going from “the only thing people watch live are sports” to “the only thing people watch live is the NFL.”

According to a Sportico report, 41 of the top 50 broadcasts and 75 of the top 100 broadcasts of 2021 were NFL games. The Top 10 included mostly playoff games (Super Bowl LV leading the charge) but also featured holiday games, including the Thanksgiving Day tilt between the Las Vegas Raiders and Dallas Cowboys ranking fourth overall. The only non-football activity in the Top 10 was President Biden’s inauguration — which ranked seventh, behind six NFL games.

Recent figures showed just how dire the current broadcasting landscape is for non-sports entities, as 95 of the Top 100 broadcasts were sports-related. The only non-sports programs to crack the top 100 live broadcasts in 2021 were the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the “Equalizer” pilot that followed the Super Bowl, “New Year’s Rockin Eve,” Oprah's interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, and the post-January 6th Capitol Riot edition of “60 Minutes.”

If it still hasn’t set in just how much broadcasting has changed over the past few years, this handy infographic (courtesy of Sportico) should put things in perspective:

The fact that Sportico could boil down the top broadcasts of a given year into 9 icons, coupled with the amount of dark brown footballs in this image is staggering to view. What’s even more staggering is that the NBA and MLB don’t even have a seat at the table, let alone the NHL, NASCAR, MLS (or soccer in general,) or any other sports league out there. And forget the days where a scripted show like “Seinfeld” or “Friends” could pull an NFL-worthy number — those days are long gone. The only reason “The Equalizer” made the list is because it was on right after the Super Bowl — a time where many Americans are either wishing their loved ones a safe trip home away from the TV or passed out on the couch in a chicken wing-induced food coma.

This also isn’t a new phenomenon. As of last year, 24 of the top 25 and 77 of the top 100 most-watched programs on television have been NFL games for five years running. While audiences are shrinking elsewhere, the NFL is propping up the very idea of live television.

The fact is, football rules American airwaves, and it’s why FOX is doubling down on football with its rebooted USFL that should start play on FOX and NBC later this year.

Failure to have the NFL essentially relegates your network to an immediate second-tier status. It’s why broadcasters spent ungodly sums of money to lock up rights for a decade. And these numbers mean the renewal rights for NFL Sunday Ticket could be stratospheric. If Amazon Prime Video broke the bank to acquire it, the fallout for competitors could be huge. If Disney swoops in, it could make ESPN+ an absolute juggernaut — it already has a mind-boggling grasp on the NHL. Sunday Ticket is the wildcard kingmaker still in play.

Network groups with the NFL can also play hardball with retransmission negotiations. Look how quickly YouTube TV’s standoffs with NBCUniversal and Disney ended during this NFL season. It’s not a coincidence that the battles took place mid-season. Imagine how many people would be willing to jump to another provider if the league were suddenly unavailable.

This also explains why Sinclair’s Bally Sports Networks are essentially left for dead by live streaming services. Without the NFL, they fall into the abyss of “nice to have,” but not “need to have.”

We’re eventually going to have to break broadcasters into only two categories — those with football and those without. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who fall into the latter category.

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