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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Americans are tuning into NFL football in greater numbers than last year, according to early season viewership figures, signaling the league's fumbled handling of domestic violence cases has not dented its overall popularity.
Through the first three weeks of the season, audiences watching nationally televised primetime broadcasts have risen and nearly all networks have seen an uptick in viewership so far this season.
Although the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have been widely criticized for their uneven response to abuse cases involving players, angry fans have so far not turned the channel in protest.
"I'm not going to stop watching football," said Los Angeles lawyer Conor Flahive, 26.
The NFL's domestic abuse crisis was touched off when Goodell suspended former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice two games for punching his fiancé, now wife, unconscious, a punishment many believed was too light.
Goodell reversed course this month after a surveillance video of Rice's punch was published, raising questions at how America's most popular and powerful sports league could not obtain a video that the media was able to find and view.
"Obviously, they did a bad job handling it," Flahive added, echoing much of a public sentiment that heaps blame on the NFL higher-ups while stopping short of turning their backs on the league in general.
Network CBS has drawn 19.5 million viewers on average to its Sunday afternoon NFL games, according to Nielsen data, an increase from its 17.8 million it averaged over the course of last season, continuing the NFL's run as a ratings juggernaut.
NBC's "Sunday Night Football" - one of TV's top programs - has averaged 21.8 million through the first three games, a 2 percent rise from last season.
Audience data for Sept. 28 games will not be available until Thursday.
Broadcaster Fox's average was down slightly to 20.5 million average viewers from 20.7 million viewers last season.
But that figure is likely to surpass last season's average after data is compiled from Sunday's Philadelphia Eagles-San Francisco 49ers game - two high-profile teams from large TV markets.
For viewers like Lorraine Sarles, a Los Angeles bankruptcy attorney, she continues to watch her hometown Dallas Cowboys because football is an ingrained part of her family life.
"If I want to see my husband on Sunday, yes," she said, when asked if she was watching games these weeks in the midst of the biggest crisis to hit the league in decades.
Sarles added that if a Cowboys player was in a domestic abuse case like Rice or Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson, she would stop buying team merchandise.
Cable network ESPN's "Monday Night Football" has edged up early in the season with some 14 million average viewers over the three games it has broadcast that have started during primetime on the East Coast.
One of the network's two games in Week 1, between the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals, drew 11.5 million total viewers despite a late 10:15 p.m. kickoff for the East Coast.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Ken Wills