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The NFL’s TV audience shrank some in 2020, but the league remains the top draw on ad-supported television.
The regular season that wrapped on Jan. 3 dipped by about 10 percent in TV viewership compared to 2019, stopping a two-year streak of audience growth for the NFL. Across all of the NFL’s broadcast partners — CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC and the league-owned NFL Network — games averaged about 14.9 million viewers, vs. 16.5 million a year ago, per a Hollywood Reporter review of Nielsen ratings. The 2020 figure comes in a bit below 2017, when the regular season averaged 14.96 million viewers.
The NFL’s official figure, excluding four games that were moved due to COVID-19 outbreaks within teams, is 15.4 million TV viewers, down 7 percent year to year. Viewing on digital properties raises the average to 15.6 million.
NFL viewership tends to decline some in election years, and that was the case here. Four of the league’s six regular weekly broadcast windows had larger average audiences in the second half of the season — after the presidential election — than they did in the first half.
As the NFL played through the novel coronavirus pandemic, the league was also forced to reschedule a number of games due to virus outbreaks on several teams. Most notably, NBC’s primetime Thanksgiving game — which averaged better than 21 million viewers the previous two years — was bumped to an afternoon slot six days later and drew just 10.75 million.
The NFL also featured its first streaming-exclusive game ever on Dec. 26, drawing 5.9 million viewers for the contest on Amazon’s Prime Video and home market over-the-air affiliates.
Despite the declines, however, the NFL remains far and away the No. 1 programming franchise on ad-supported TV. The late Sunday afternoon games shared by CBS and Fox drew 21.59 million weekly viewers this season, almost 5 million more than the top primetime show of the fall: NBC’s Sunday Night Football at just under 16.8 million, which is on pace to be the top primetime series for the 10th consecutive season.
The two early Sunday windows averaged 13.03 million and 15.35 million viewers. ESPN’s Monday Night Football drew 11.75 million viewers per game, and the Thursday night package shared by Fox and NFL Network drew 11.89 million. No other primetime show has averaged that many same-day viewers this season.
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