NFL TV Ratings: Viewership numbers that define the 2020 season

By Vincent Frank
Sep 14, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos players kneel during the National Anthem before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

NFL ratings, a look forward: The 2020 NFL season is closing up shop on the regular schedule. It’s been a rather interesting year around the gridiron world. Even the season’s NFL TV ratings have been interesting.

There was a lot of talk about said NFL ratings once the season started amid national anthem protests following the murder of George Floyd, among others, at the hands of authorities around the United States. With the country in the midst of an election year, this was magnified even further.

Since then, things have trended both up and down. The opening “Thursday Night Football” game between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs saw horrible numbers. This was repeated over and over again until things seemed to even out.

Below, we look at NFL TV ratings and the 2020 season with updates as the final quarter of the campaign plays out on our television sets amid the pandemic.

Related: What to make of decreased NFL ratings

Updated: Jan. 12, 2:32 PM EST

NFL TV ratings down big time for wildcard round

NFL Playoff odds and point spreads: Don't discount Baker Mayfield's Browns.
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 outgoing 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 and national anthem protests

One of the primary stories heading into the 2020 NFL season was a rift between outgoing President Donald Trump and the league over national anthem protests. Following the murder of George Floyd by a then-Minneapolis police officer on May 25, the league opted to change its tune.

That included Roger Goodell supporting both the Black Lives Matter movement and related protests. This was a split from how the league handled the initial protests, headed by Colin Kaepernick back in 2016. In fact, the NFL admitted its mistakes in that regard.

This obviously did not sit well with POTUS and those who support him. He called for a boycott of the league. While there’s no concreate evidence that a widespread boycott took place, some early-season primetime games saw NFL TV ratings decreases from a season ago.

That was obvious during the opening “Thursday Night Football” game between the Chiefs and Texans in Kansas City. Texans players stayed in the locker room for the national anthem. Players then locked hands in protests ahead of the game. The opening game saw a dramatic ratings decrease from a season ago.

It’s not known how this will be impacted moving forward. Protests could potentially die down some should actual police reform take hold around the United States under President-Elect Joe Biden. If not, there’s a chance we’ll see more protests of this ilk during the 2021 NFL season. If that does happen, expect those in the “respect the flag” category to continue speaking out.

NFL TV ratings for Wednesday night football eye-opening

The Wednesday Week 12 game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, delayed three times due to COVID-19, saw 10 million viewers tune in.

It was a midweek game that started during work hours, both on the west coast and back east. For comparison’s sake, the late-afternoon Sunday game between the Chiefs and Buccaneers drew 23 million viewers.

NFL Week 1 TV ratings

NFL Ratings: Week 1, Texans-Chiefs
Sep 10, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; The Kansas City Chiefs unveil the Super Bowl Champions banner before the game against the Houston Texans at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The opening “Thursday Night Football” matchup back in Week 1 offered the NFL with a major wake-up call in terms of TV ratings. Overall ratings were down a whopping 16.1% from last season’s “Thursday Night Football” opener between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. This could very well end up being a 10-year low for the NFL on NBC.

The opening “Sunday Night Football” game between the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys in Southern California drew less than 19 million viewers. That was a dramatic drop off from the 2019 season.

Related: Raiders’ Vegas home opener draws huge TV ratings

NFL ratings, Sunday Night Football

We have seen a mixed bag as it relates to NBC’s broadcast of “Sunday Night Football” thus far this season. Arguments can be made that the product has created issues. However, others will point to the politics of it all (more on that below). But here are the raw numbers.

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.

Related: President Trump takes aim at NFL

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

Related: NFL supports Black Live Matter

Following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement earlier this year, 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 sin 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.

Related: NBA national anthem protests

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.