- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

There is no rule that says a recession should prevent people from watching football from their couches.

So while the NFL may be nervous about the impact of the economic crisis on everything from attendance, sponsorships and the cost of its debt, it can take heart in the knowledge that its television ratings remain, by far, the highest in all of American sports.

While data from the end of the regular season show that three of the five NFL broadcast networks saw minuscule dips in average viewing this past season, the numbers also show that an average of more than 60 million people tuned in to watch the NFL each weekend.

The “winner” of the NFL ratings battle was Fox, which landed an average of 17 million viewers, or a 10.5 rating. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was second with an average of 16.6 million viewers, while CBS drew 16.2 million per game on average. ESPN, meanwhile, drew 11.9 million per game for its “Monday Night Football” broadcasts, an increase of 6.5 percent over last season.

If there is a dark cloud here, it’s in the ratings from the NFL Network’s Thursday and Saturday night games, which drew an average rating of 6.2, down from 7.1 last year. While that rating is still higher than just about anything else on cable, the NFL does not want to see a drop of that size as it continues to fight with cable companies for wider distribution of the network. The NFL Network is currently available in fewer than half the cable households in America.

Ratings for the NFL are, as always, driven by matchups, and last season’s ratings were driven heavily by the New England Patriots and their run toward an undefeated regular season. The Super Bowl, featuring the New York Giants’ upset win over the Patriots, drew more than 97.5 million viewers, a number that may never be topped.

This year has had no such story lines, though the Steelers-Cowboys and Giants-Eagles matchups attracted strong ratings while the Eagles-Vikings wild-card game drew an average of 30 million viewers, making it the most-watched program of any kind this fall season. The NFL’s wild-card weekend was the most-watched in five years, with even the postgame and pregame shows on Fox and NBC drawing more viewers than anything else on television.

Last weekend’s divisional playoff games were four of the five most-watched television programs of the week.

Ratings for the AFC and NFC Championship games will be tough to predict. The Ravens-Steelers rivalry certainly has mass appeal, while the resurgent Eagles are always among the most-watched teams in the NFL.

The outlier here is the Arizona Cardinals, who are appearing in their first-ever NFC Championship game. For years, the Cardinals have been among the doormats of the NFL and rarely, even in this season, have they appeared on national television. Before moving into University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006, the Cardinals often weren’t even on television locally because of their inability to sell out.

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