Keidel: NFL's weekend ratings prove how the gridiron is still sports' king, even in pandemic times

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To the highbrow types who just don't dig the NFL, they may grin at the grim ratings staining the gridiron over the last year. No doubt every business, even pro football, can lay many of its woes at the bonfire we call COVID-19.

But even in the darkest times, the NFL's light beams brightest through the clouds of a pandemic, and still wins the ratings war by wide margins, its viewers dwarfing those of our other major team sports.

In fact, with all the bubbles hosting the NBA and MLB, it was refreshing to see NFL games played in their proper stadiums, and not in some regional hub that rips the edge from home and road games. The Super Bowl was set on Sunday, when the Chiefs won the AFC title on their turf, in their weather. And it was heartwarming to see Clark Hunt accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy, named after the Chiefs' patriarch and founding father of the AFL, with at least a freckling of their own fans.
Likewise, the NFC was settled in the spiritual home of the NFL, Green Bay, played in pro football's temple, Lambeau Field. While it took a while to adjust our eyes to largely empty NFL stadiums, it slowly grew into its ancestral perch as the top-watched sport in America, by far.

Consider that the latest NBA Finals, won by the Los Angeles Lakers yet played in Orlando, averaged 7.5 million viewers over six games, a 51 percent plunge from the year before (according to Bloomberg). And that's featuring the league's flagship franchise (Lakers) and the greatest player of this generation (LeBron James).

Baseball is not any better. The Los Angeles Dodgers, a pillar of our pastime going back a century, all the way to Brooklyn, just won their first Fall Classic since 1988 – yet few cared. Indeed, the 2020 World Series, in which the Dodgers toppled the Tampa Bay Rays, delivered the smallest TV audience in the history of the World Series. According to the Los Angeles Times, the six-game series averaged 9.8 million viewers, an all-time low (the previous record was set in 2012, when the Giants and Tigers averaged 12.6 million over four games). The ratings also tumbled 32 percent from the 2019 World Series, and if you're looking for some scents of home cooking, consider the Dodgers won the World Series at a place called Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, which has no baseball relevance and wasn’t even open during the 2019 World Series.

For one more competitive chuckle, consider hockey's ratings. Last year, the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals averaged 953,000 viewers over six games, a 61 percent freefall from 2019.

Now consider pro football. Before we even see the Super Bowl and the ratings bonanza it always brings, we can just gaze at the semifinals to be reminded of the NFL's dominance. On Sunday, the NFL's premier quarterback matchup between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers in the NFC title game drew a monster 23.0 rating, which translates into 44.7 million TV viewers – or about as many for one game as the NBA totaled over six games, and not far behind the total World Series viewers over six games. So while the NFL saw tangible dips in viewership during wild card weekend and the divisional round - ratings drops of approximately 10 to 30 percent for the first two weeks of the playoffs - they rose to nearly normal numbers for the league's final four.

All of which means the Super Bowl, which not only features the first team ever (Tampa Bay) to play the big game in their own stadium, but also pits Tom Brady, widely considered the greatest quarterback of all-time, against Patrick Mahomes, the young passer/sorcerer who many feel will someday supplant Brady as the greatest to throw a football, should be huge. Last year's Super Bowl, played between the Chiefs and 49ers, drew a TV audience of just under 100 million. Even if this Super Bowl merely matches the last one, Super Bowl LV will be one of the 15 most-watched TV shows in American history.

It just gives you full-view of the Secretariat-like lead the NFL has over any other sport. Even in the worst of times, no sport gives us the authenticity, action, or adrenaline-draining fun of pro football at its best, even in the worst of times.

Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel

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