Temporal dislocation and the National Football League conspired to take a huge bite out of the TV audience for the Masters, which posted the lowest ratings for a Sunday round from Augusta since CBS began broadcasting the tournament 65 years ago.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Sunday’s round, which culminated in Dustin Johnson securing his first Green Jacket, averaged 5.59 million viewers and a 3.4 household rating, giving CBS its lowest turnout since 1957, when Doug Ford beat Sam Snead by three shots. That one-hour broadcast, which aired from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET, averaged a 3.0 rating.
While viewership data for the Masters only extends as far back as 1995, Sunday’s average marks the smallest audience since Nielsen began monitoring those stats. By way of comparison, the last 10 final rounds averaged 13.3 million viewers on CBS. (Incidentally, no Nielsen data exists for CBS’s first-ever Masters in 1956, which was rated by Arbitron.)
Johnson’s historic victory—his 20-under-par now stands as the Masters’ all-time lowest score—was seen by roughly half the number of viewers who tuned in to watch Tiger Woods’ unanticipated triumph a year ago. CBS’s live coverage of the 2019 round averaged 10.8 million viewers and a 6.6. rating, deliveries that reflected the broadcast’s early start time. Augusta officials pushed the tee time for tourney leaders Woods, Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau all the way back to 9:20 a.m. ET, or a good six hours earlier than usual, in a bid to avoid a patch of heavy weather.
As was the case this year, the tee-time adjustment in 2019 made the final round a harder sell for golf enthusiasts in the westernmost time zones. An encore presentation that followed on the heels of the live broadcast helped claw back a fair amount of those lost impressions; when rolled up into one tidy number, the early coverage and the replay averaged 15.4 million viewers and a 9.9 rating, making it the most-watched and highest-rated final round of the Masters since 2010.
This year’s tourney was beset by even greater chronological upheaval, as the first Sunday threesomes teed off at 7:50 a.m. ET from the first and tenth holes. More jarringly, the Masters was held a full seven months after its originally scheduled dates (April 9-12). If the time leap wasn’t sufficient to dilute the interest of the usual crowd of amateur duffers who tune in every year—here in the Northeastern megalopolis, most golfers have already put their clubs away for the winter—the overlap with Fox’s regional NFL coverage certainly didn’t help matters.
Fox’s five early games, which featured massive media markets (New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington D.C.) and legendary QBs (Brady, Rodgers), averaged 18.2 million viewers and a 10.2 rating, making it the network’s most-watched slate of regional games since 2009. In the face of that sort of competition, and in the near-absence of Tiger Woods—CBS cameras were trained on the five-time Masters winner 16 times over the course of Sunday’s round, well shy of Johnson’s 63 appearances—golf never stood a chance.
The Masters isn’t the only PGA major to be transplanted to the relatively inhospitable climes of autumn. Back in September, NBC’s coverage of the final round of the U.S. Open eked out that tourney’s lowest TV deliveries on record, averaging just 3.21 million viewers and a 2.0 rating. Yanked from its traditional Father’s Day roost, the Open was thrust into the path of Fox and CBS’s Week 2 NFL coverage. Fox’s early regional games averaged 16.9 million viewers and a 9.0 rating, while CBS’s late-afternoon national window (73% Chiefs-Chargers) served up 18.9 million viewers and a 10.1 rating.
If it’s no longer shocking to see big-time sports fare so poorly outside of their usual broadcast environments—in a year of COVID-related cancelations, postponements and a general dismantling of the calendar, we’ve seen record lows tallied for the NBA Finals, World Series and Kentucky Derby—it’s worth noting that there is perhaps no sporting event for which ratings matter less than the Masters. Free of the burden of ratings guarantees and beholden only to a trio of sponsors who pay just enough to cover the costs of production, CBS’s primary concern when covering the goings-on at Augusta is to provide viewers with a broadcast that is commensurate with its 65 years of service.
Put it this way: Last week, Jim Nantz revealed that his oft-used one-liner about retiring on April 8, 2035 (the projected date for the final round of what would be his 50th Masters) no longer matched his ambitions, and that he’d like to be helming CBS’s coverage when he’s well into his eighties. From a quality-control standpoint, there’s no reason to believe otherwise.