NFL TV Tracker: A Weekly Look at NFL Viewership

    • TV audiences fell 14% in Week 5 compared to last season.
    • League audiences are down 11% season-to-date.

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The NFL suffered another double-digit television audience drop in Week 5 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to reschedule more games.

The league’s average TV audiences fell 14% to 14.4 million viewers compared to 16.7 million during Week 5 of the 2019 season, according to Sports Media Watch.

This marks the second-worst weekly drop so far of the 2020 season. Season-to-date, the NFL is averaging 14.7 million viewers, down 11% from last season.

America’s most popular sports league was already grappling with the migration of viewers to cable news during a presidential election year and the glut of live sports programming all on at the same time.

But the coronavirus pandemic continues to play havoc with the game schedule. 

An outbreak among the Tennessee Titans forced the league to push Titans vs. Buffalo Bills to Tuesday night. It was only the second Tuesday Night Football game in history.

An NFL source also noted the league’s TV ratings typically fall during a U.S. presidential election year — then rebound once a new president is picked in early November.

The NFL’s Week 5 games also had to compete for eyeballs with the NBA Finals and MLB’s postseason. 

Still, the NFL’s 11% decrease is not bad compared to the more alarming drops for the Kentucky Derby (down 43%), NBA Finals (down 50%), and Stanley Cup Final (down 61%). 

Front Office Sports will be following the NFL’s average TV audiences through the 2020 season. 

The stakes are high. All of the NFL’s media deals expire after the 2021 and 2022 seasons. There are potentially billions of dollars at stake as the league tries to nearly double its $5 billion annual rights fees from media partners ESPN, CBS, NBC, and Fox. 

After growing 5% apiece in the past two seasons, some TV executives worry the league’s double-digit drop during the first quarter of 2020 augurs a return to the 2016 and 2017 seasons — when average audiences fell 8% and 10%, respectively. Details:

WEEK 1: (09/10-09/14)

Average Audience: 16.2 million (down 8% from 17.6 million)

Analysis: Tom Brady’s debut with Tampa Bay Buccaneers delivered a 7% boost for Fox in its late Sunday afternoon game window. But audiences dropped for all four of the league’s primetime games, with ESPN’s two “Monday Night Football” telecasts falling 18% and 27% respectively. 

WEEK 2: (09/17-09/20)

Average Audience: 14.8 million (down 5% from 15.5 million)

Analysis: TV numbers bounced back a bit thanks to several games involving teams with national TV followings. The Dallas Cowboys’ comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons powered Fox to a 10% boost for its single header coverage. ESPN’s “MegaCast” coverage of the Las Vegas Raiders’ first home game across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Deportes delivered a big 31% increase.

WEEK 3: (09-24-09/28)

Average Audience: 15.5 million (flat vs. last season).

Analysis: The faceoff between Mahomes and Lamar Jackson — the league’s last two MVPs — lived up to its billing TV-wise, drawing an enormous number for ESPN. Kansas City led all local TV markets with a 50.7 rating, followed by a 29.5 in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Fox’s telecast of the Seattle Seahawks’ 38-31 win over the Cowboys was the top TV show of the week. As always, America’s Team draws eyeballs.

WEEK 4: (10/01-10/05)

Average Audience: 12.7 million (down 26% from last season).

Analysis: The coronavirus and TV competition derailed NFL ratings in Week 4. Chiefs vs. New England Patriots drew 14.6 million viewers in primetime Monday night. That’s great compared to everything else on TV, but it’s down 48% vs. the 28.11 million the same teams drew in Week 14 of the 2019 season.  Throw in wall-to-wall cable news coverage of President Donald Trump’s battle with the coronavirus and the league had a TV week to forget. 

WEEK 5: (10/08-10/13)

Average Audience: 14.4 million (Down 14% from last season).

Analysis: Let’s hear it for Tuesday Night Football. The Titans’ 42-16 blowout win over the Bills averaged a decent 10.8 million viewers on CBS. Could the NFL add Tuesdays to its game schedule? But what happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a national TV draw? Audiences for Fox’s single header coverage of the undefeated Steelers’ 38-29 win over the Philadelphia Eagles fell 23%. That was the worst drop for any Week 5 game window.

Things are looking up for Week 6. Fox’s late Sunday afternoon telecast of Brady’s Buccaneers vs. Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers could be the TV game of the season. Fans will get another “Monday Night Football” doubleheader, featuring Chiefs-Bills and Cowboys-Arizona Cardinals. Stay tuned for Week 6 updates.

Sources: NFL, TV networks, Nielsen Media Research, Adobe Analytics, ShowBuzz Daily, Sports Media Watch, FOS Reporting.