Examining American AFL TV Ratings

We are nearing the midpoint of the Australian Football League season, and it is shaping up to be a fantastic one filled with some fantastic stories.  From North’s hot start to the resurgence of the Western Bulldogs and the blossoming of GWS, it has been captivating so far.

This season has been important for another reason.  For the first time since ESPN broadcast AFL (then VFL) matches back in the 1980’s, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 have provided regular Aussie Rules telecasts live on regular American cable.  Each has shown one game a week, with a further two matches per week being shown on Fox Soccer Plus.

That FS2 and FSP showed matches was to be expected.  That they were to be shown on Fox Sports 1, a channel which is received by 90% of cable and dish subscribers across the country, was a pleasant surprise.  Beginning with Round 3, Fox’s biggest sports network began relaying matches live.  Fox Sports 2 has a smaller audience, while Fox Soccer Plus, a subscription channel, plays to an even smaller viewership.

But how many people are watching, and how are the numbers trending?

I’ve compiled all of the numbers from the first nine rounds below thanks to sportstvratings.com, and put them in a chart below.  You can view the graphic by clicking on it.  Note that this is strictly for FS1 and FS2, and that each of the numbers indicate average viewership in thousands over the course of the program.  I have no numbers from Fox Soccer Plus.  I am also, sadly, missing the numbers from the ANZAC Day match, where Texan Mason Cox famously slotted the opening goal.

But in short, the numbers seem pretty promising for an obscure sport being shown in the wee small hours of the morning.

Since FS1 began showing matches in Round 3, approximately 43,000 people have tuned in to watch AFL games on FS1 and FS2 each week, with about 24,500 of them in the 18-49 year old demographic.

There have been seven games shown on Fox Sports 1, averaging 34,000 viewers a game, with a shade under 20,000 in the 18-49 demo.  The trend was downward since holding steady from rounds three through five -- 39-39-40-31-25-25 – but rebounded this past weekend when approximately 40,000 people watched Port Adelaide take on West Coast this past Saturday.  That game began at 2:30am on the east coast Saturday, which was an 11:30pm Friday start Pacific Time.

As I mentioned above, these are average ratings over the course of the match broadcast.  However, I was able to find partial numbers that are also pretty encouraging.  Approximately 70,000 American viewers were watching the first hour of the Round 5 match between Richmond and Melbourne, which began at 5am on Sunday, April 24th.  The number for the 18-49 year old viewers?  About 48,000.

And of course, with the steady audience, people are talking about the game social media.  Many of them asking “what is this?” or saying something along the lines of “I am so confused but this is awesome,” or my personal favorite, “AUSSIE RULES IS LIT.”  At least, I think that last one is a good thing.  I’ve taken the liberty of reaching out to a few of them to let them know that they have a USAFL team in their backyard and generally they seem keen to want to follow along or even try footy on their own.  Any little bit helps.

I also find we’re getting attention, albeit slowly, from stories from major outlets such as ESPN and CBS Sports about the AFL combine held in LA last month, as well as by the success (so far, at least) of Mason Cox.  Many fans don’t know that we have a league in the U.S., and that they too can try their hand in it.

Now you may saying to yourself, "Brian, you are way too excited over 40,000 people watching footy. This is miniscule compared to what the NBA and NHL are getting for their playoffs."  And you'd be right.  It isn't a whole bunch.

But it all means that more Americans are discovering our great game and are paying attention to it.  40,000 people watching a live sporting event in the middle of the night is a big deal, especially if it's a foreign sporting event that isn't soccer.  It is worth being optimistic about.

I’ll keep an eye on the ratings over the next six weeks or so and come out with another blog post then.

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