The NFL has had its best season ever by at least one metric

Another close NFL game.
Another close NFL game.
Image: AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo
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The National Football League has enjoyed a spike in its TV ratings this season—and that’s before the current NFL playoffs kicked off this weekend. According to NBC Sports, the NFL’s TV viewership increased by an average of 5% per game.

One stat in particular helps explain that.

First, it’s worth noting how much the league needed a win. In addition to declining viewership, in recent years it’s also suffered through a great deal of controversy. In 2017, US president Donald Trump blamed the league’s problems in part on players taking a knee during the pre-game national anthem to protest police violence and social injustice. The physical toll of American football has continued to come under increased scrutiny, with a growing acceptance of the connection between players sustaining multiple concussions throughout their careers and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative form of dementia that worsens with age. There have also been various scandals in recent years involving players’ off-field conduct, including, recently, a video showing running back Kareem Hunt hitting a woman. The list goes on. It’s not good.

In some ways, the bad news continues with the latest numbers on the league’s viewership performance. According to NBC Sports, fewer people watched NFL games this regular season than last.

But here’s the good news for the league: Those who did watch the NFL watched more of it. And the reason they did so was simple: close games. This season, 73 matchups were decided by three points or fewer, as noted by CNN Business. That’s a record number. The league had a record number of touchdowns, but the suspense of close matches may have been a bigger factor.

Jay Rosenstein, a former vice president of programming at CBS Sports, told CNN Business that he predicted the viewership boost at the season’s start based on the matchups he saw in the team schedules. “The league is built on high scoring,” Rosenstein added, “but I’ve always maintained that it’s the intensity of the games that matters most, even arguably more than the score.”

This season, the league has been blessed with intense games. Indeed, a week 11 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams was hailed by ESPN as the “greatest regular-season NFL game ever.” The Rams won 54-51 in dramatic fashion, and, depending on how the playoffs shake out, could very well face the Chiefs again in next month’s Super Bowl LIII.