NFL television ratings see 6% decline at midseason point

The NFL was not expected to be immune from the rating declines that have hit all sports this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and presidential
election. But the declines are not as bad as feared at the beginning of the

Games are averaging 15.1 million television and digital viewers, according to the league and Nielsen, a 6% decline from last year. Despite the decreases, all but four of the top 30 shows since the season began have been NFL games

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“Considering all the issues the NFL has had to deal with, the ratings are OK,”
said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs his own
sports television consulting company. “It hasn’t been a great year for ratings
considering everything that has happened, but they aren’t in the toilet

Sports consultant Marc Ganis cited the lack of preseason games to build up
fan interest, and all four major professional sports playing in September as
other reasons for this year’s slow start.

The ratings also didn’t suffer precipitous declines compared to the last
presidential election cycle in 2016, when they were down 14% compared to

“I know there have been lots of, well, ‘NFL ratings are down.’ Not really.
Election years, they’ve been going down for the last three election cycles, not just the last one,” Ganis said. “The NFL ratings have actually been quite

good. They’re going to get better now that the election is over. The gap
between the NFL and all the other sports in terms of TV ratings has grown.
So the NFL has gotten stronger vis a vis other sports.”


The Thursday and Sunday night packages have suffered the biggest declines
with each package down 16%.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is averaging 17.2 million and remains on pace to be primetime’s top show for the 10th straight year. There were five
straight weeks when NBC’s games faced competition from NBA or MLB
playoff games.

NBC has had tough luck the past two weeks. It had Dallas-Philadelphia on
Nov. 1 while the New Orleans-Tampa Bay matchup last Sunday was a
blowout by halftime. The first half this past week averaged 18.9 million
viewers, which was the highest since the Cowboys-Rams game in Week 1.

Fox is averaging 12.8 million for “Thursday Night Football.” Some factors in
their lower audiences include one of their games being moved to a late
Monday afternoon (Kansas City-Buffalo) and another going against the final
presidential debate (Giants-Eagles).

“I think the election was kind of a pivotal moment. We have seen the
skyrocketing of cable news ratings. Now that the election (story) is nearing
an end I think people will go back to kind of normal consumption patterns.
So we think we have weathered the storm,” NBC Sports Group chairman Pete Bevacqua said. “We really believe with the schedule, particularly with us having the ability to flex games, should be unbelievably strong as we enter into the second half of the season.”

It’s not all bad news for primetime packages: ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” numbers were flat through the first eight weeks at 11.71 million.


CBS has rallied over the past five weeks and is down only 1%, while Fox has
had a 6% decline. Both networks have faced competition from cable news,
especially during the early afternoon window. The late afternoon numbers for both are flat.

“There’s been so much competition, but we’ve had some terrific ratings.
Cable news has been up 50 to 75% on weekend afternoons because of
interest in the election,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said.

CBS is averaging 17.84 million viewers, up 9% over the same period last
season. Last Sunday’s Pittsburgh-Dallas game averaged 22.72 million. The
network’s highest-ranked games were Giants-Cowboys in Week 5 and San
Francisco-New England in Week 7, when both averaged 23 million.

Fox, which is averaging 17.4 million, has the season’s three most-viewed
games. The first Saints-Buccaneers matchup, which was Tom Brady’s debut
with Tampa Bay, was Fox’s featured Sunday game on opening weekend and
averaged 26.3 million.

“Everything affecting the NFL is temporary,” Fox Sports senior vice president Michael Mulvihill said. “There’s not going to be an election, we should be back to having live attendance, and hopefully, there will be a better NFC East (which has been another factor in Fox’s declines).”


In what isn’t a surprise, Brady’s move to Tampa Bay has translated to huge
interest. The Buccaneers’ local ratings are up 29% from last season, the
biggest year-over-year gain. Cincinnati’s 18% gain is second due to Joe
Burrow’s performance after being the top selection in the draft, followed by
Seattle (11%).

Defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City (45.8), New Orleans (41.6) and
Buffalo (39.6) are the top-rated local markets. The rating is the percentage
of television households tuned in to a broadcast.