The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NFL to go head-to-head against the Masters Tournament. The television results were not positive for either sports property.
Instead of airing an NFL regular season game at 1 p.m. ET, CBS Sports televised the final round of the 2020 Masters. Without the usual 1 p.m. game from CBS, the net TV effect was that of the NFL playing with 10 players on the field.
The NFL’s Week 10 audiences averaged 14.7 million viewers, down 13% from the same week last season. Season-to-date, the NFL is averaging 14.9 million viewers. That’s off 7% from the same point during the 2019 season.
By the same token, competing against the NFL hurt Masters TV numbers too. CBS’ final round coverage of Dusin Johnson’s first green jacket plummeted 48% compared to Tiger Woods’ epic win in 2019. It was the lowest-rated Masters in 63 years and the least-watched final round since that number began being tracked in 1995.
Still, compared to the record-low numbers for the NBA Finals and World Series, the NFL is proving why it’s the single most valuable programming in all entertainment.
Front Office Sports is tracking the NFL’s TV audiences through the 2020 season.
The stakes are high. All of the league’s media deals expire after the 2021 and 2022 seasons. There are potentially billions of dollars at stake as the NFL tries to nearly double its $5 billion annual rights fees from media partners ESPN, CBS, NBC, and Fox.
After growing 5% in each of the past two seasons, some TV executives worry the NFL’s 7% drop through the halfway point 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 last season).
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 last season).
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 matchup between Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens — 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. America’s Team still draws eyeballs.
WEEK 4: (10/01-10/05)
Average Audience: 12.7 million (down 26% from 17.2 million last season).
Analysis: The coronavirus and TV competition derailed NFL ratings in Week 4. Chiefs vs. 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 these same teams drew in Week 14 of the 2019 season.
Throw in wall-to-wall cable news coverage of 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 16.7 million last season).
Analysis: Let’s hear it for Tuesday Night Football. The Tennessee Titans’ blowout win over the Buffalo 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’ win over the Philadelphia Eagles fell 23%. That was the worst drop for any Week 5 game window.
WEEK 6: (10/18-10/19)
Average Audience: 14.5 million (up 3.6% from 14 million last season).
Analysis: It was nice for the NFL to get back in the black TV-wise. Brady continues to be the top draw of the season. Despite the lop-sided score, the Bucs win over the Green Bay Packers drew the biggest audience of the week: 22.3 million viewers. Keep an eye on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” which has grown its audience for three straight weeks. Numbers probably would have been higher if Chiefs-Bills had not been moved to a 5 p.m. ET kickoff time Monday.
But NFL TV networks can’t rest on their laurels. Last season’s Week 6 TV numbers were undercut by the small numbers for a London game window.
WEEK 7: (10/22-10/26)
Average Audience: 14.7 million (down 6.4% from 15.7 million last season).
Analysis: If there’s one trend emerging during this unpredictable season it’s that NFL game telecasts on Sunday afternoons continue to perform well but primetime games are a crapshoot.
Viewers for Week 7’s “Thursday Night Football” matchup between the Eagles and Giants and the “Sunday Night Football” matchup between the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals fell 26% and 33%, respectively. But Sunday game windows on Fox and CBS were both up over 20%.
Week 8: (10/29-11/02)
Average Audience: 16.2 million (up 3% from 15.7 million last season).
Analysis: The Bucs’ “MNF” win over the Giants set at a local TV ratings record in Tampa. Tirico fully expects Brady, arguably the best quarterback in history, to drive big TV numbers throughout the second half of the 2020 season.
“It’s the most scrutinized position in all sports. Greatest champion at that position. Did it in one place for so long. But still at a high level and going to do it somewhere else,” he said. “It’s like taking Bruce Springsteen away from the E Street Band and moving him up to Maroon 5. All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh my god, are you serious?’ It’s just that. You’re taking greatness — and you’re moving it somewhere else. You want to see: Is it him? Was it where he was? And you want to see if he can go win another one somewhere else?”
Week 9: (11/05-11/09)
Average Audience: 14.8 million (down 2% from 15.0 million last season).
Analysis: The more things changed post-election, the more they stayed the same for the NFL’s TV numbers.
The league continued to post stronger numbers in the late Sunday afternoon game windows than during national, primetime telecasts.
CBS’ late Sunday afternoon telecast of the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Cowboys drew the biggest audience of the weekend, averaging 22.71 million viewers.
But the Saints’ blowout 38-3 win over the Bucs sent viewers fleeing from NBC Sunday night. Brady’s worst-ever career loss averaged 16.9 million viewers, down 23% from the comparable game the previous year. Stay tuned for Week 10 updates.
Week 10: (11/12-11/16)
Average Audience: 14.7 million (down 13% from 16.8 million last season).
Analysis: CBS’ loss in Sunday’s 1 p.m. game window was Fox Sports’ gain. With no competition in the early Sunday afternoon window, Fox’s viewership jumped 73% for the first half of its doubleheader, according to Sports Media Watch. It was also the first time in recent memory that all of the league’s 1 p.m. Sunday games aired on a single network.
Fox announced its early games averaged 18.2 million viewers — making it the most-watched regional game window on the network since 2009. It was also the best regional game window ever for Fox Sports Digital, with the average minute audience up 111% to 565,052. Stay tuned for Week 11 updates.
Sources: NFL, Sports Media Watch, TV networks, Nielsen Media Research, Adobe Analytics, ShowBuzz Daily, FOS Reporting.