The NFL in Week 4 faced down the biggest disruptions of the regular season thus far, as a coronavirus outbreak in the Tennessee Titans organization and a positive test for New England’s starting quarterback forced the league to scramble to reconfigure the TV schedule. In shifting CBS’s marquee game to the unfamiliar confines of Monday night, the NFL diminished the network’s Sunday afternoon national window and placed the uprooted Patriots-Chiefs showcase in the path of the New York Yankees and a defiantly convalescent President Donald Trump.
As expected, the revamped schedule worked to CBS’s disadvantage. Instead of enjoying a near monopoly in the top-rated Sunday slot—before the switcheroo, New England and Kansas City were set to reach 93% of all U.S. TV households, while Fox’s lone 4:20 p.m. game (Giants-Rams) was limited to around 25% coverage—CBS instead had to contend with the Yankees-Rays ALDS game on TBS and a frenzy of cable news coverage that arose in the wake of the president’s release from Walter Reed Medical Center. Fox News Channel alone commanded 4.26 million viewers opposite the Pats-Chiefs broadcast, while the Yanks-Rays slugfest siphoned off another 2.33 million viewers.
There was also some overlap with ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast, a somewhat lopsided Falcons-Packers tussle that averaged 8.65 million viewers. Between the time ESPN’s game kicked off at 9 p.m. ET and the Pats and Chiefs wrapped things up at Arrowhead, CBS’s ratings had dipped 7%.
If the final Nielsen tally was still quite respectable, there’s no question that CBS lost ground in its exotic new setting. Kansas City’s 26-10 win over the short-handed Pats (QB Cam Newton’s COVID-19 diagnosis led to the game being moved) averaged 14.6 million viewers and an 8.3 household rating, and while that ran the table on everything else on TV Monday night, it was also a far cry from the numbers the two teams put up in their last meeting. On Dec, 8, 2019, the two AFC powerhouses averaged 28.1 million viewers and a 16.1 rating on CBS’s big Sunday platform, nearly twice what they managed to scare up on Monday night.
Which is not to say that other NFL broadcast partners this weekend didn’t also lose some ratings ground. NBC’s Sunday Night Football pairing between the 0-2-1 Eagles and 1-2 49ers wasn’t much to look at; per Nielsen, the NFC struggle session averaged a season-low 15.1 million viewers and an 8.4 rating. As with CBS’s signature game, the Philly-San Francisco duel faced some not-insignificant competition of its own in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Miami’s 115-104 victory over the Lakers averaged 5.94 million viewers and a 3.9 rating on ABC.
NBC’s deliveries were down 38% when compared to the Cowboys-Saints skirmish a year ago, which notched a season-high 24.1 million viewers and a 13.7 rating.
Ratings were down across the board last week, as the audience for the six standard NFL windows declined 26% year-over-year. Some of that erosion can be chalked up to a tough Thursday Night Football comp, which saw viewership for the cable outlet NFL Network juxtaposed with that of Big 4 broadcaster Fox.
NFL Network, which reaches a little more than half of all U.S. TV homes, drew 5.41 million viewers and a 3.2 rating with its Broncos-Jets coverage, a good deal behind the 17.6 million/10.5 Fox served up last year with its Eagles-Packers opener. Fox reaches 82% of American TV homes.
All told, NFL TV ratings are now down 10% versus the first four weeks of 2019. Last week, the difference was just 5%. But a rocky weekend isn’t cause for panic, and NFL insiders have said that slippage is an inevitable side effect of a presidential election and a shakeup of the sports calendar that has led to an unprecedentedly crowded fall TV schedule.
Rather than bend the knee to anecdotal evidence, the NFL can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that it’s faring far better than the other top sports leagues. The settled NBA Finals are down 50% compared to the first three games of the 2019 Warriors-Raptors series, the NHL Stanley Cup Final was down 62% when compared to last season’s seven-game Bruins-Blues thrill ride and the final round of the PGA’s U.S. Open toppled 56% to an all-time ratings low. Meanwhile, overall broadcast usage since the 2020-21 TV season began is down 35% year-to-year, as the average audience has shrunk from 22.3 million viewers per night to 14.6 million.
Facing a net loss of 7.72 million potential viewers and a calamitous turnout for many of the other top sports properties, the NFL’s 10% loss doesn’t seem too bad after all. Still, all eyes at 345 Park Ave will be riveted on next Sunday’s Packers-Bucs deliveries on Fox. At present, Tom Brady’s new team is the league’s top TV draw, and Fox is on pace to win the NFL ratings crown for the eleventh consecutive season. The last time Brady and Aaron Rodgers faced off on a Sunday afternoon, back in November 2014, 30.9 million people tuned in to watch.