While the cult of NFL Ratings Doomers is cluttering Twitter feeds and the Google search algorithm serves up a whole lot of Chicken Little results about the league’s first batch of TV deliveries, it’s time to take a deep breath and assess the situation from a somewhat less frenzied POV. Despite the screaming headlines and the Told-You-So takes from the league’s most vocal critics, the audience for the opening slate of broadcasts was nearly as massive as it was a year ago.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the NFL’s four Sunday broadcast windows averaged 18 million viewers, which marked a 3% decline compared to the first Sunday of play in 2019. A year ago at this time, the national and regional broadcast windows averaged 18.5 million viewers.
Fox emerged from the first week of NFL action the clear victor, as both of its TV showcases delivered higher ratings than they did in the year-ago period. Fox’s presentation of the Tampa Bay-New Orleans air war in the 4:20 p.m. ET window averaged 25.8 million viewers, which marked an 8% lift compared to last season’s analogous Giants-Cowboys blowout. Available in 91% of all U.S. TV markets, the Bucs-Saints broadcast gave fans their first look at Tom Brady in his new threads as he took on a Drew Brees-helmed squad which closed out 2019 as the NFL’s sixth-biggest TV attraction.
Earlier in the afternoon, Fox put up big numbers with its regional coverage, which was dominated by an NFC North battle between Green Bay and Minnesota, but also included big-market pairings such as Philadelphia-Washington, Chicago-Detroit and Seattle-Atlanta. The Fox-aired games that kicked off at 1 p.m. ET averaged 13.5 million viewers, up 7% versus the year-ago 12.6 million.
Over on CBS, the afternoon AFC games took a hit compared to the early window on Sept. 8, 2019. CBS’s Sunday coverage, which featured a one-sided AFC North mugging (Baltimore beat up on Cleveland 38-6) and Cam Newton’s debut as the Patriots’ starting QB, averaged 13.6 million viewers, down 12% from last year’s opener (15.4 million).
As is usually the case, it was NBC’s primetime window that was the focus of much scrutiny this week. The tenor of much of the early ratings coverage can be characterized by this headline, which leaned hard on the all-caps “TOTAL DISASTER” before going on to say that the Sunday Night Football numbers “PLUNGE[D] 28%.” That assessment was simply inaccurate; according to the final Nielsen data, the Cowboys-Rams broadcast averaged 18.9 million TV viewers, down 15% compared to last season’s Steelers-Patriots game (22.2 million).
If the turnout for the first installment of SNF was somewhat disappointing—if TV ratings are anything to go by, Dallas is by far the league’s most popular franchise, averaging 23.4 million viewers in its 12 national broadcasts—the local deliveries suggest that the nation’s No. 2 media market simply wasn’t pulling its own weight.
Despite serving as the host market of a game that coincided with the opening of the $5 billion SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles failed to turn out in huge numbers to support the Rams. L.A. tied Milwaukee for 16th place among local markets, eking out a 13.6 rating and a 26 share. By contrast, Dallas-Ft. Worth pulled a 27.0/48, which means that nearly half of all TV households in the area were tuned in to NBC.
The L.A. TV stats look even more anemic when compared to last season’s Steelers-Pats opener. The local numbers are a testament to true fandom, as Pittsburgh topped the list with a 42.3 rating/60 share, while New England’s Providence (37.4/57) and Boston (36.3/58) markets finished second and third.
That L.A. has long been considered a dud TV market is not exactly a deep, dark secret; while fans turn up en masse for the Lakers, other televised sports generally get short shrift. In 2018, when an L.A.-repping Rams club reached the playoffs for the first time in nearly 30 years, only 11% of area TV homes tuned in. During that same season, the Rams’ ratings in their new market (12.1) barely topped the ratings served up by the recently-jilted St. Louis area (12.0). For good or ill, many media insiders perceive L.A. as Bandwagon City, pop. 5,145,350 TV households, a place where many residents don’t show up for the regular season, but then it’s all Rally Monkeys and Thundersticks as soon as the playoffs begin.
The Los Angeles TV conundrum—and the Chargers are even more of a drag, as the San Diego transplants’ win over the Bengals on Sunday did a meager 4.9 rating in the L.A. market—is a reminder that market size isn’t necessarily a guarantor of outsized national ratings, which is something that affiliates in New York are now coming to appreciate. Housebound Gothamites paid very little attention to the Jets this weekend, as Gang Green’s loss to the Bills averaged a 6.0 rating in the home market.
If it’s far too early in the season to make any sweeping pronouncements about the NFL’s TV ratings, the sheer volume of advertising dollars and the relative number of impressions served up by the league’s media partners should discourage any loose talk of boycotts and upper- or lower-case disasters.
In a span of 12 hours on a late-summer Sunday, NFL games generated between $130 million and $140 million in ad sales revenue while delivering up some 5.5 billion impressions—this despite the fact that overall TV usage on the day was down 10% versus the year-ago period. The 8 million adults 18-49 who tuned in for Sunday Night Football more than tripled the combined primetime demo deliveries on ABC, CBS and Fox, and the afternoon game on Fox now stands as the year’s 13th most-watched broadcast.
If that’s the sort of thing the NFL and its network partners can come to expect during these final months of 2020, you’re not likely to hear anyone complaining.