Another week of NFL action is set to kick off, but any matchups this week will pale in comparison to the Denver Broncos battle with the Dallas Cowboys last week. That goes for the action on the field -- the game led to a 51-48 thriller won by the Broncos on a last second field goal. However, just as impressive as the action on the field was the ratings the game put up; it drew 28.3 million viewers.
The 28.3 million viewers tuning into the game just barely trailed the ratings for the week one battle between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. That game set a high water mark for the season, drawing 28.5 million viewers.
While the Broncos matchup with the Cowboys last week was CBS' best ratings on the season, the headline is the mixed momentum across different broadcasters of NFL games this season. We're headed into week 7 of the regular season, and so far this year every game on Fox has seen viewership and ratings increases relative to the prior season.
That success hasn't been shares by all broadcasters, however. Last week's Jets vs. Falcons game drew just 11.4 million viewers for ESPN's Monday Night Football. That's off 19% from the same week last year. Declines in the key 18-49 demographic were even greater. That's not news ESPN's parent company Disney (NYSE:DIS) wants to see amid some recent rating difficulties for the company.
Overall, both ESPN's Monday Night Football and NBC's Sunday Night Football have struggled this year, seeing week after week of ratings declines relative to the prior year.
It's notable that both NBC and ESPN are struggling since they're the primetime broadcasters of NFL games. It probably wouldn't be wise to look too far into six weeks of ratings information. A primetime broadcast like Sunday Night Football or Monday Night Football can go through a slate of weaker games. For example, there wasn't much in the way of compelling storylines for the Jets vs. Falcons matchup this Monday.
Yet, the Monday night game is the NFL's most lucrative. ESPN's deal to run Monday Night Football through 2021 is worth a reported $1.9 billion per year. Compare that to the deal with daytime broadcasters; Fox will pay a reported $1.1 billion a year in its new deal.
ESPN isn't completely beholden to ratings. While advertising is important to the network, it's estimated that 75% of ESPN's operating profit comes from monthly fees cable companies pay the company to carry its stations. Having the NFL on an exclusive day gives ESPN plenty of leverage to negotiate higher rates from cable providers.
Yet, difficulty in NFL broadcast ratings still comes at a poor time. In the second quarter, ESPN saw a ratings decline of 32% relative to the prior year. In the same quarter NBC Sports saw ratings grow 17% versus the prior year. Throw in the recently launched Fox Sports 1 adding more competition to the space, and you can see why ESPN needs its NFL broadcast to be a strong anchor across the next decade for it to maintain its leverage over cable companies.
Don't look too much into a few weeks of ratings, but if this trend keeps up, things could start getting uncomfortable in Bristol.
Eric Bleeker, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.