NFL TV Ratings: Viewership numbers that will define the 2021 season

Feb 7, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

NFL ratings, a look forward: The 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching following a 2020 campaign that saw interest in the sport trend both up and down.

There was a lot of talk about said NFL ratings once the season started amid national anthem protests following the death of George Floyd. The season then concluded with Super Bowl LV seeing a major downtick in viewership.

Below, we look at NFL TV ratings and the 2021 season with updates regarding the 2021 NFL Draft and other thing leading up to Week 1 in early September.

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2021 NFL Draft was the third-most watched ever

NFL storylines: Trevor Lawrence
Logan Bowles/NFL Handout photo via USA TODAY Network

There wasn’t a ton of drama atop the 2021 draft with the Jacksonville Jaguars eyeing Trevor Lawrence at one and the New York Jets linked to BYU’s Zach Wilson with the second selection. However, intrigue when it came to the San Francisco 49ers trading up to No. 3 led to continued uptick in viewership with the annual event seeing its third-highest ratings ever.

“Per a league press release, the 2021 NFL Draft was seen by an average audience of 6.1 million viewers (TV and digital) across NFL Network, ABC, ESPN, ESPN Deportes and digital channels during the three-day event, making it the third most-watched draft ever,” NFL Media noted. “The three most-watched drafts in NFL history have occurred in the last three years: 2019 (6.2 million), 2020 (8.3 million), 2021 (6.1 million).”

Continued interest in the NFL Draft is a great thing for the league. It started out as nothing more than a niche event for the most hardcore of fans. Now, it’s a three-day event that shows just how popular the NFL is compared to the other three major North American professional sports leagues. Don’t expect this to change in 2022 with the draft heading to Las Vegas.

NFL TV ratings wrap: Super Bowl LV sees major downtick in viewership

Perhaps, fans were not excited to see Tom Brady play in his 10th Super Bowl. There’s a good chance that the lack of parties due to the COVID-19 pandemic played a role, too. Either way, Super Bowl LV between the eventual champion Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs represented the worst ratings for the big time since all the way back in 1969.

According to Sports Media Watch, the game drew the lowest ratings for a championship bout in the league since Super Bowl III between the then-Baltimore Colts and New York Jets.

“It was just the seventh Super Bowl with less than a 40 rating, and the first since 1990 (49ers-Broncos: 39.0) — snapping a 30-year streak.”

That specific Super Bowl matchup saw Joe Montana and the 49ers defeat John Elway’s Denver Broncos by the score of 55-10, the biggest blowout in the history of the big game.

As we have noted throughout, NFL TV ratings were a mixed back throughout the 2020 season. The pandemic coupled with an election year and political divisiveness around the United States played a major role in this. With the league struggling revenue-wise due to COVID-19, seeing one of the lowest-rated Super Bowls in NFL history can’t be seen as a great thing.

NFL TV ratings up for AFC Championship Game, NFC Championship Game

Winners/losers AFC Championship Game: Bills-Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes
Jan 24, 2021; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) celebrates with quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) after scoring a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during the third quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The mixed bag as it relates to NFL ratings for the 2020 season continued during Championship Sunday. After seeing a drop during the NFL Wildcard weekend, both the AFC and NFC Championship Games saw increases from a season ago.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Buccaneers’ win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game drew 44.77 million viewers. That’s up 5% from the 49ers’ win over the Packers in last season’s conference title game. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ victory over Buffalo in the other conference title game drew 41.85 million viewers. That’s up 2% from last season’s Chiefs win over the Titans.

Given the backdrop of NFL ratings during the 2020 season and how they have been coupled with the political dynamics in the United States, it must be noted that Championship Sunday had a bit different of a feel to it.

For comparison’s sake, Wildcard Weekend came mere days after the attack on Capitol Hill and with President Biden’s inauguration pending. With those two things in the rear-view mirror, fans were actually able to pay attention to sports. Novel concept.

NFL TV ratings down big time for wildcard round

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Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) rushes back to the locker room after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal] Browns Extras 10

Despite having two extra games during the wildcard round the playoffs this season, interest was not there from football fans around the United States. According to Sportico, ratings for the games were down 25% on Saturday compared to last year and 20% on Sunday. That’s a major downtick in ratings for the NFL.

There’s a number of things that could be behind the ratings decrease. Perhaps, the general public was not too interested in watching sports considering what’s going on in the United States today following the attack on Capitol Hill last week.

It’s also possible that 10 consecutive hours of football each day played a role here. Heck, the matchups might not have been seen as too juice. Either way, this is something to watch heading into the divisional round next weekend.

NFL TV ratings for Week 16 up significantly from last season

A 2020 NFL campaign that has been somewhat defined by a politically-based rift between former President Donald Trump and the league of national anthem protests has also led to a lot of talk about NFL ratings on the boob tube. We have some more information about Week 16’s slate of action, and it’s pretty darn good for the league.

NFL Media reported on Tuesday that Saturday’s game between the Lions and Buccaneers drew 6.3 million viewers, which is up 13% from the same time slot last season. The Dolphins’ stunning win over the Raiders Saturday night represented the most-watched NFL Network exclusive of the season. Meanwhile, the NFL Network itself was television’s most-watched network on Dec. 26.

Meanwhile, 20.1 million viewers tuned in to watch Saints running back Alvin Kamara torch the Minnesota Vikings for six rushing touchdowns on Christmas Day. Aired on Fox and NFL Network, that viewership was up 19% from the NFL’s previous Christmas Day game between the Steelers and Texans in 2017.

NFL ratings decline has networks scrambling

We’ve focused below on the up-and-down NFL TV ratings thus far this season. Not much of that had to to with networks and their relationships with sponsors as a decline becomes around around the football world. Whether it’s the ongoing pandemic or something else, said decline has forced networks to scramble and strengthen relationships with sponsors.

“TV networks are feeling the strains of disappointing NFL ratings, as they are forced to restructure deals with advertisers to make up for the smaller audience, and their opportunity to make money off remaining games during the lucrative holiday season narrows,” the Wall Street Journal reported this past weekend.

Those close to this situation called it “unheard of.” Some of the broadcast networks, such as CBS and Fox, has even considered advertisers pay less than what they had originally pledges to air ads during NFL games.

Throughout the first 13 weeks of the 2020 season, NFL TV ratings are down 7% from a season ago. That might not seem like a lot. But when we look at ad revenue, the economic downtick from COVID-19 and the NFL’s own revenue issues, it is no small thing. That’s for sure.

NFL TV ratings: A broad look

As you can tell, it has been a mixed bag. A lot of the NFL TV ratings numbers are dependent on specific matchups and competition on the air waves.

Back in 2016, during the presidential election cycle, multiple “Thursday Night Football” games went up against debates. That was not the case in 2020 with one debate between President Trump and president-elect Biden canceled and another midweek NFL game canceled. This was going to be among the primary indicators of the health of NFL TV ratings. That’s obviously not the case.

Monday Night Football ratings

NFL TV ratings: Week 11, Buccaneers-Rams
Nov 23, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Before the NFL season began, ESPN worked desperately to lure in a broadcasting crew that would entertain fans and increase viewership. After missing out on Tony Romo, Peyton Manning and even Sean McVay, ESPN settled on its backup plan.

Unfortunately for the network, in a year that saw the company lay off 300-plus employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL ratings have taken a hit this season. Monday Night Football was already the lesser football package for NFL games and the decline in viewership hasn’t helped.

  • Monday Night Football, Week 12: 11.38 million viewers and 3.4 rating, per SportsMediaWatch, tuned in for Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles game.
  • MNF, Week 11: 12.61 million viewers and 3.6 rating (18-49) for Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers battle.
  • MNF, Week 10: 11.45 million viewers, 3.2 rating for Monday night’s NFC North battle between Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.
  • MNF, Week 9: 10.22 million viewers and 2.8 rating for the New England Patriots and New York Jets matchup.
  • MNF, Week 8: 11.7 million viewers, 3.5 rating (18-49 demographic) for ESPN’s Buccaneers and New York Giants broadcast.
  • MNF, Week 7: 10.91 million viewers, another dip for MNF, for Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams game.
  • MNF, Week 6: 11.32 million viewers watched the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys on ESPN.
  • MNF, Week 5: 10.69 million tuned in for the Los Angeles Chargers and New Orleans Saints clash.
  • MNF, Week 4: 8.65 million people watched the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, the lowest-rated MNF game of the NFL season.
  • MNF, Week 3: 14.7 million viewers witnessed the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens square off, a huge boom for ESPN.
  • MNF, Week 2: 15.59 million watched the New Orleans Saints and las Vegas Raiders, the most-watched MNF game this season. The NFL’s first nationally-televised game with a Las Vegas team was gold for ratings.
  • MNF, Week 1: ESPN’s MNF double-header, featuring the Steelers-Giants and Titans-Broncos game showed the first signs of NFL ratings taking a hit.

While things haven’t gone perfectly this year for ESPN, it hasn’t lessened the network’s desire to expand its NFL coverage. The contract with the NFL to broadcast MNF games ends in 2021 and contract talks are already underway.

However, ESPN is thinking even bigger than Monday Night Football. There are discussions about the network, or its partner ABC, broadcasting a future Super Bowl. ESPN is also reportedly in a bidding war with NBC for the rights to Sunday Night Football.

The NFL is expected to sign multiple record-setting contracts with television networks to renew and even expand broadcasting rights for future games. Even with viewership dipping this season, nothing draws a bigger audience than NFL games. Unsurprisingly, ESPN, NBC, FOX and CBS all want a part of that.

Sports TV ratings and national anthem protests

NFL TV Ratings. Cowboys-Browns, national anthem protests
Oct 4, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Dontari Poe (95) kneels during the national anthem before the game against the Cleveland Browns at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Following the death of George Floyd and the police officer-involved shooting and death of Breonna Taylor, athletes across the country started using their platform more than ever before. With millions of Americans protesting across the United States, professional athletes were no longer staying silent.”

The NFL and NBA garnered the most attention for the efforts of players, teams and the league itself. However, MLB also strayed from precedented and spoke during a time of civil unrest.

MLB ratings for 2020 season

Major League Baseball released a statement following Floyd’s killing. Additionally, Minnesota Twins skipper Rocco Baldelli spoke out about police brutality and the need for systemic changes within the country. The Boston Red Sox had Black Lives Matter signage along the bleachers at Fenway Park. In one of MLB’s biggest moments this past season, San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler and several players kneeled during the national anthem.

When a delayed Opening Day finally happened on July 24, the game shattered MLB ratings. Just a year after the MLB Playoffs drew a massive audience, things looked promising for baseball. However, even as the league went silent about social justice as the year unfolded, its viewership got worse.

The 2020 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays drew an alarmingly low audience. Competing against the NFL’s regular season and the NBA Playoffs, MLB’s broadcasts were routinely crushed in the ratings. NFL TV ratings remain king.

NHL Stanley Cup ratings

Things were even worse for the NHL. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final got off to a miserable start. When the six-game series ended, with the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrating over the Dallas Stars, it was the least-watched Stanley Cup in more than a decade.

Even with the NHL largely avoiding political messages and focusing primarily on the sport itself, none of it mattered. The combination of games being played in an empty stadium and sports fans having their attention divided across multiple sports led to a steep hit in ratings.

NBA Playoffs and NBA Finals ratings compared to NFL TV ratings

NFL TV ratings compared to the NBA
Aug 26, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Referees stand on an empty court before the start of a scheduled game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic for Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 26, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA and its players were the most active in calling for systemic change in the United States and supporting the Black Lives Matter message.

Before the NBA returned in the Orlando bubble, there was legitimate discussion about suspending the rest of the schedule. Players were angry about the latest incidents of police brutality, with some willing to give up a lot in the name of change.

When the season resumed, the NBA had Black Lives Matter on every court. Then, just as everything seemed to be going smoothly, it all stopped on Aug. 26. Following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks held a wildcat strike for Game 5 of their playoff series.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers seriously considered sitting out the rest of the NBA Playoffs. Ultimately, when NBA teams agreed to make more accommodations to help address justice reform and arenas would be used as polling places, the playoffs resumed.

Just like the NFL, MLB and NHL, the NBA’s ratings also took a hit. Ratings fell by a staggering amount compared to the NBA Playoffs in 2019 and the NBA Finals suffered, too. It even led to a heated argument between Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Sen. Ted Cruz.

As you can see, NFL TV ratings might have declined thus far during the 2020 season. However, they remain the gold standard for other sports leagues in North America.