June 17, 2024


General Evolution

In 2020 The Audience Of NFL Regular Season Games Dropped

After two years of ratings growth, in 2020 the audience for the 17-week regular season NFL games dipped across all broadcast and cable networks. According to Nielsen, excluding rescheduled games because of the pandemic, the 2020 regular season averaged 15.4 million viewers (live + same day), a 7% decline from the previous regular season. It was the lowest average audience since 2017. When all televised games are included the average audience dropped to 14.9 million viewers. Despite the falloff, NFL ratings remain strong in a continuing fragmented video landscape. The audience delivery is more than triple the average viewership of regularly scheduled prime time shows on broadcast TV in the fall of 2020.

Average Audience of Regular Season NFL Games

2020 15.4 million

2019 16.5 million

2018 15.8 million

2017 15.0 million

2016 16.5 million

2015 18.7 million

2014 17.6 million

For the 2020 season there were 18 NFL telecasts that delivered an average audience of over 20 million viewers, compared to 29 games in 2019. The 18 games can be broken out into holidays (three games), late Sunday afternoon (14 games) and the Kick-off Classic on NBC. Once again, the top-rated game of the regular season was on Thanksgiving Day (Washington at Dallas) which averaged 30.3 million viewers on Fox. In total, Fox had televised ten of the highest rated games, followed by six on CBS and one each on NBC and Fox/NFL Network (on Christmas Day).

The only other regular season game to average over 25 million viewers was the late (national) afternoon game on Fox during the first week. The game featured two forty-something quarterbacks, the debut of six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady with Tampa Bay and Drew Brees of New Orleans. The game averaged 25.9 million viewers.

With an average audience of 16.8 million viewers, NBC’s Sunday Night Football ended their 15th season as the top-rated prime time program on television for a record tenth consecutive season. Nonetheless, the audience declined from 20.5 million in 2019. In addition, it was the least watched Sunday Night Football audience since 2008. NBC announced when digital viewing is included the total audience for Sunday Night games in 2020 grew to 17.4 million. The highest rated Sunday night game on NBC was Week 11 between Super Bowl champs Kansas City and division rival Las Vegas.

The average audience of Monday Night Football on ESPN during the season was 11.8 million viewers, a slight drop-off from last season’s average audience of 12.1 million viewers. Launched in 1970, the ratings for Monday Night Football ended strong with the final six games reporting an increase in viewers when compared to the similar week in 2019. A contributing reason for the ratings surge was simulcasting several games on ABC. The top-rated game was on Week 2 New Orleans versus Las Vegas and averaged 15.6 million viewers. It was the first home game for the newly relocated Las Vegas Franchise (from Oakland). The game was also part of ESPN’s “Megacast” which included ABC, ESPN 2 and ESPN Deportes. The top-rated game airing exclusively on ESPN was the following week featuring the last two NFL MVPs, quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City and Lamar Jackson of Baltimore. That game averaged 14.7 million viewers.

For the season, Fox was once again the top-rated network on Sunday afternoon with an average audience of 18.1 million viewers. The late afternoon games branded as “America’s Game of the Week” averaged 23.2 million viewers in 2020. It marks the twelfth straight year the late afternoon national game was the top-rated overall program on television. Nonetheless, the audience for NFL games dropped on Fox by 6% when compared to 2019.

In 2020 the CBS games on Sunday afternoon averaged 16.5 million viewers, a year-over-year decline of 4% and the lowest rated season since 2017. Thursday Night Football games simulcast on Fox and the NFL Network as well as various streaming platforms (i.e., Amazon Prime Video), averaged 14.1 million viewers for the season, a decline of 6% from 2019.

During Week 16 of the season (Saturday, December 26th), Amazon Prime Video and Twitch streamed a live NFL contest between Arizona and San Francisco. The game was also available on local over-the-air stations KNTV (NBC station) in San Francisco and KSAZ (Fox station) in Phoenix as well as Verizon. The streaming video component reported an average minute audience of 4.8 million viewers and increased to 5.9 million when the two broadcast stations are included. The NFL announced 11.8 million viewers had watched some part of the game streaming on Amazon and Twitch.

With the pandemic the 2020 NFL season was very different from the previous 100 seasons. First, there were no preseason games. Also, with a limited number of spectators, Front Office Sports reports attendance to NFL games barely surpassed 1 million, compared to over 17 million in 2019. It was the least attended NFL season since 1938 (1.1 million) when the league had ten teams. Also, in a first, the NFL had a regular season game played on every day of the week, with games being rescheduled throughout the season as players tested positive for COVID-19.

Of the 256 regular season games, 18 were moved at least once because of the pandemic. This had an impact on ratings. For example, the Baltimore versus Pittsburgh games scheduled for Thanksgiving night on NBC were moved three times and eventually played the following Wednesday afternoon (December 2). Last year, the Thanksgiving night game (Atlanta versus New Orleans) averaged 20.8 million viewers, this year the rescheduled game averaged 10.8 million. averaged

Similar to the 2016 season, NFL ratings for games early in the season were impacted by the upcoming election. For example, during week 4 (October 1-October 5, 2020) of the NFL season, ratings were down by 26% compared to the same week in 2019. Additionally, in week 5, which included a rescheduled Tuesday night game (Tennessee versus Buffalo), year-to-year ratings were 14% lower (October 8-October 13, 2020). The Hollywood Reporter notes, post-election, the ratings for four of the six NFL regularly scheduled windows generated higher ratings after the election.  

Despite the falloff in ratings, the NFL is in a good position heading into the next round of rights fees negotiations with their TV partners with current contracts soon expiring. Sportico reports in calendar year 2020, NFL games accounted for 33 of the 50 highest rated telecasts. Furthermore, this postseason the NFL will have 13 games (up from 11) including the Super Bowl. Postseason games are higher rated with a large majority and even early round playoff games averaging over 30 million viewers. In addition, in 2021 the NFL announced they will expand the regular season to 17 games (from 16).