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NFL TV ratings deliver mixed view in Week 1

The opening weekend of the 2020 National Football League provided a decidedly mixed bag on United States television ratings, leaving any conclusions about the full state of the league’s viewership amid the Covid-19 pandemic unclear at best.

After NBC Sports posted an 11 per cent drop for the September 10 opener between Kansas City and Houston, the NFL’s four Sunday broadcast windows on September 13 averaged 18 million viewers, a 3 per cent decline from the first Sunday of the NFL’s 2019 season.

But within that aggregate view, there were sharply differing trends. Fox Sports’ national, late Sunday afternoon presentation of Tampa Bay and New Orleans, representing the first game for legendary quarterback Tom Brady as a Buccaneer, averaged 25.8 million viewers, an 8 per cent increase over the comparable late-afternoon opener last year.

The Saints-Buccaneers game represented the most-watched telecast on all of American television since Super Bowl LIV in February.

Fox Sports’ regional NFL games earlier in the day on September 13 also combined to post their best Week 1 performance since 2016, averaging 13.5 million viewers, up 7 per cent and buttressed by a series of large-market divisional matchups such as Chicago-Detroit and Washington-Philadelphia, and popular draw of Green Bay-Minnesota.

“Our [National Football Conference] package is about storied brands and Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and those factors came together to produce a four-year Week 1 high and television’s biggest audience since the Super Bowl,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports executive vice president of strategy and analytics.

CBS Sports’ regional coverage on the opening NFL weekend, meanwhile, fell 12 per cent to an average of 13.6 million, while NBC Sports’ Sunday night primetime game between the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys, marking the debut of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, fell 15 per cent to an average of 18.9 million US viewers.

The Sunday night rating was dragged down in part by a decidedly weak showing from Los Angeles viewers for one of their two home teams, with the local-market rating ranking just 16th among local markets for the game. Local-market ratings for national primetime showcases such as this are typically led by far by the home markets of the two competing teams.

ESPN also averaged 10.8 million viewers on September 14 for the early half of its Monday Night Football opening-week doubleheader, down 20 per cent. The late half, meanwhile, averaged 7.7 million viewers, down 38 per cent from a year ago and representing its least-watched Week 1 late window since the sports media giant began airing Monday Night Football 14 years ago.

The initial downward indicators in several of the NFL’s broadcast windows drew some immediate pronouncements on social media and elsewhere about a doomsday scenario for the league, which remains far and away the most popular programming on US television, regardless of content genre.

But given the heavy confluence of competing sports programming due to Covid-19 reschedulings – resulting this month in several iterations of a previously rare US “sports equinox” in which the NFL, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League all play on the same day – it will likely take many more weeks to discern fuller viewership patterns.