NFL Ratings: Did 200 Million People Really Watch Games in 2011?

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterJanuary 6, 2012

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 08:  Greg Jennings #85 of the Green Bay Packers is mobbed by fans after leaping into the stands following a touchdown catch against the New Orleans Saints during the NFL opening season game at Lambeau Field on September 8, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Saints 42-34.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A lot, and I mean A LOT of people watch the NFL. According to the NFL, 23 of the 25 most-watched programs on television this fall were NFL football telecasts. According to the Nielsen Company, via press release from the NFL, "the 2011 regular season reached more than 200 million unique viewers."

That's…a lot of people. I mean A LOT of people. That number includes so many people the number is nearly impossible to fathom. The number almost cannot be true. Did the release mean 200 million people around the world? That would make more sense.

No, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, the TV numbers in that release are counting only American viewers. The NFL and Nielsen claim that more than 200 million unique viewers watched NFL football this season.

Let's take a closer look at that number.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 312,809,000 people in America (give or take a few births or deaths this morning). The NFL, therefore, claims that nearly 64 percent of the entire population of the United States viewed an NFL game this year.

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 24:  Two kids, a Detroit Lions fan and a Green Bay Packers fan, cheer on their teams before the Lions take on the Packers during the Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field on November 24, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory S
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
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That total population number includes everyone in America, by the way. There are more than 20 million Americans under the age of five, for example. I know at least two of those Americans under the age of five who watched a ton of NFL football this season, but I can guarantee they would have rather watched Handy Manny than Eli Manning on Sundays. Regardless of what they want to watch, I suppose they still count under the 200 million unique-person umbrella. They'd have to.

That's OK. Let's count little kids who can't decide what to watch in an effort to boost our TV ratings. I will grant the NFL that. Here, however, is where things get really fishy.

The viewership for the Dolphins at Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day was 31 million people, the highest-rated show on TV in 2011. The Packers at Lions game that same day had 30.2 million viewers and the 49ers at Ravens that night on NFL Network had 10.7 million viewers. Even if every single person only watched one of those games on Thanksgiving, making each of the Thanksgiving viewers "unique viewers," that number would total 71.9 million viewers.

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 24:  Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys during the Thanksgiving Day game at Cowboys Stadium on November 24, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

That means even if every single NFL fan only watched one of the three Thanksgiving games—an assumption that is clearly ridiculous to make—there are still, somewhere in America, another 128 million people who watched the NFL this season.

I'm sorry to say, but the NFL and Nielsen have to be insane if they expect us to believe those numbers.

Even if half the viewers of the first game stuck around for the second game on Thanksgiving, the total unique views would reach 45 million. If you add in the 10.7 million from the late game as completely new viewers, the total is just over 55 million. Still, that number is completely inflated and still, the NFL and Nielsen expect us to believe that another 150 million people who didn't watch the NFL on the biggest NFL viewing day of the year (outside of the Super Bowl) tuned in at another time during the last 17 weeks.

The NFL release states that an average of 17.5 million viewers watched games this year, the second-highest average since 1989, down by 400,000 from last season. It also states that an average of 19.8 million viewers watched games on Fox, CBS and NBC, taking out the lower-rated cable network games to boost the numbers even more.

There are 256 games in the NFL regular season, meaning that the NFL did TV numbers of 4.48 billion views this season. That can't actually be true, can it?

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 04:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers slides to the turf against Prince Amukamara #20 of the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on December 4, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Nielsen ranked their top shows, putting the Fox Sunday National game on December 4 as the third most-watched show of the year. The NFL release states the rating of 29.8 million viewers was "mostly Packers-Giants," but there were two other games in that times lot that helped make that number so high. Heck, the Cowboys were playing in that same window, so there's no way the Packers and Giants did anything close to 29.8 million viewers.

In fact, if you take the 29.8 million viewer rating for that window of games and simply divide it by three (for the three games on Fox at that time), the average rating would be somewhere around 9.9 million. That's still a huge TV number, especially for a Sunday afternoon, but it's not exactly 29.8 million.

Now, obviously more than 9.9 million people watched the Giants and Packers play and probably more than 9.9 million watched the Cowboys and Cardinals play, too. But the numbers have to even out somewhere, and that's clearly with the Rams and 49ers game, which was only shown in those two markets.

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18:  Quarterback Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos is tackled by strong safety James Ihedigbo #44 of the New England Patriots at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Ge
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

On December 18, the CBS national window did a number of 28.2 million viewers for "mostly Patriots-Broncos." That game went to most of the country, with two games going to local markets only. The Jets faced the Eagles at the same time, meaning the New York and Philadelphia markets (and Buffalo for some reason) got that game instead. That game was big for both teams and probably did a huge number in both markets, but you can't say the same for the third game in that window—Cleveland at Arizona—which certainly didn't do CBS any favors on the viewer averages.

Taking averages only works if you take the average of every single game, not every single television window. The NFL numbers are huge, but it's nearly impossible for them to be that huge.

You know what…let's actually go with it. Let's, for a moment, believe that 200 million unique citizens of this great nation watched NFL football between Labor Day and New Year's Day. What does that number really mean?

• Per the NFL and Nielsen, 64 percent of Americans watched NFL football.

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 01: A fan of the Green Bay Packers wears a frozen Lambeau Field hat during a game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field on January 1, 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

• Per the NFL and Nielsen, more people watched the NFL than the number of people ages 18-64 currently living in America.

• Per Nielsen, there are an estimated 114.7 million homes with televisions, down slightly from last year. Also per Nielsen, there are an average of 2.5 TVs per household, meaning that there are somewhere around 287 million TVs in this country. At some point, per the NFL and Nielsen, 200 million people used some or all of those 287 million TVs to watch football.

• Per the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 131.7 million housing units in America (numbers reflect 2010 data) and 112.6 million households, with an average of 2.6 persons per household. Per the NFL and Nielsen, an average of 1.78 persons per household and/or 1.52 persons per housing unit in America watched football this season.

WASHINGTON - AUGUST 09:  New Orleans Saints quarterback and National Football League MVP Drew Brees (L) presents U.S. President Barack Obama (R) with a Saints jersey during a reception for the 2010 National Football League Super Bowl champions at the Whit
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

• Per the NFL and Nielsen, there were 67.4 million more people who watched the NFL in 2011 than voted in the 2008 Presidential election.

• Per the NFL and Nielsen, there were 60 million more unique people who watched NFL football in America than those who had jobs (140.6 million). This makes sense if they are including five-year-olds in their ratings.

• Amazingly, there are nearly 328 million wireless subscriber connections in America, more than the population of the United States and its territories, meaning 40 percent more people have a wireless plan in America than watched the NFL, per the NFL and Nielsen.

• There are 254.2 million registered vehicles in America and 194 million that qualify as "light duty, short wheel base." Per the NFL and Nielsen, there are more people who watched the NFL in 2011 than all cars, SUVs, vans and light trucks on the roads. The number is equal to the NFL viewership if you include motorcycles. (I'm not exactly sure what this says about the NFL or the amount of pollution we put out on the roads ever year, but it's an interesting stat, nonetheless.)

• Per the NFL and Nielsen, there are more than twice as many viewers of NFL football than cattle in America (92.6 million in 2010).

I wonder how many sheep there are. Probably somewhere around 200 million.