The Masters Tournament found out the hard way why other sporting events go out of their way to avoid competing with the NFL.
With golf’s greatest tournament competing head-to-head with NFL programming for the first time, the 2020 Masters plunged to new lows in TV ratings and audiences.
CBS Sports’ telecast of Sunday’s final round averaged a 3.4 TV rating and 5.59 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. That was down 51% in ratings and 48% in viewership from Tiger Woods’ epic victory in 2019.
Dustin Johnson’s first Masters win generated the lowest-rated Masters Sunday since the pre-Arnold Palmer days of 1957, and the least-watched final round since that number started being tracked in 1995.
CBS’ Sunday Masters coverage was still the highest-rated and most-watched golf event of the year thus far, beating the 3.3 rating and 5.15 million average viewers for the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship won by Collin Morikawa in August.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” telecast from Augusta National Golf Club also emerged as a winner, averaging a season-high 1.71 million viewers.
So what happened to the drawing power of the famous green jacket?
Start with the NFL. The coronavirus pandemic pushed the 2020 Masters back by seven months from its normal April start, forcing it to compete in the fall for the first time against college and pro football.
Second, this year’s Masters coverage aired in earlier-than-normal starting times. During Sunday’s final round, it had to compete with both NFL pregame shows in the morning and live games in the afternoon. With no football on CBS until after 4 p.m., Fox Sports’ 1 p.m. NFL game window increased its ratings by 62%.
When the U.S. Open tried going up against the NFL in September, it too posted record-lows. TV ratings and viewership fell 55% and 56% for the major championship, dropping to a 2.0 rating and 3.21 million average viewers.
This year’s Masters also lacked the drama of Woods’ win last year, a triumph that marked his comeback from a decade of personal and physical problems.
As golf’s greatest TV draw, Woods got off to a good start Thursday as he tried to defend his title. But he faded from contention over the weekend, posting an ignominious 10 on the par-three 12th hole Sunday after hitting three balls into the water. It was the worst score of his career.
At one point, Johnson came back to the field on Sunday, leading by a single shot. But he was largely in cruise control, posting a dominating five-stroke victory. There was no back nine charge, no sudden-death playoff to attract and keep viewers.
With no patrons allowed at Augusta National due to the coronavirus, the coverage was also missing the roaring crowds that have provided the soundtrack for many riveting Masters Sunday telecasts.
As Woods told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi in a post-match interview: “It certainly is much different without patrons. The electricity is just not there.”
The Masters expanded its digital offerings this year. The TV numbers don’t reflect the number of fans who tuned in via the Masters streaming app.
This year’s Masters is far from alone in suffering a massive rating drop. The NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup Finals and all three Triple Crown horse races all plunged to record or near-record TV lows this year as the sports shutdown played havoc with schedules.