NFL ratings: Fox Sports up, 'Sunday Night Football' down in initial ratings

Jay Busbee
·4 min read

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Initial ratings are in for the NFL’s Sunday slate of games, and the ratings decline evident from Thursday’s kickoff continued through to the league’s marquee telecast, “Sunday Night Football.” However, Fox Sports recorded its best ratings since 2016 for its Game of the Week.

(Further ratings for other games are not yet available.)

‘Game of the Week’ (Fox)

Sunday afternoon’s marquee game pitted two of the NFL’s most notable players, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady vs. New Orleans’ Drew Brees. They played in an almost exclusive window as only two other games were airing at the time. The result was a major payoff for Fox.

Saints-Bucs drew a 16.2/35 overnight rating, which was Fox’s highest such rating for a Week 1 game since 2016. Fox Sports PR projects that the game is on pace to become the most-watched event of any kind since the Super Bowl, eclipsing Thursday night’s Chiefs-Texans game and February’s Academy Awards.

The telecast ratings are up 2 percent over last year, and that’s without yet counting the full New Orleans rating.

‘Sunday Night Football’ (NBC)

In a tight matchup that featured one of the NFL’s top draws, “Sunday Night Football” saw sharp declines in initial ratings from 2019, according to initial results reported by Deadline. Sunday night’s Rams-Cowboys game notched a 4.7 in early ratings among the most prized demographic, adults 18-49, with 14.81 million viewers. Those numbers will rise as West Coast viewership is factored in, but at the moment, it’s a steep decline from 2019 numbers.

Last year’s New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers game had a total audience of 22.2 million television viewers and a total of 22.7 million with digital viewers added in, a total roughly equal to 2018’s game.

Once again: early ratings are always lower than final totals, which include the West Coast — notable given that the Rams were one of last night’s teams — late respondents and out-of-home viewership. Even so, it’s unlikely the NFL will find enough as-yet-uncounted viewers to turn this kind of loss into a ratings victory.

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys didn't draw huge initial viewership numbers. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Dak Prescott and the Cowboys didn't draw huge initial viewership numbers. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Working theories of why fans are tuning in or tuning out

Critics of the NFL who wish to use the SNF ratings as a political cudgel will contend that the ratings are diving because the NFL has taken a more socially progressive stance this season. It’s a theory that, at first blush, could hold water, since Dallas is typically one of the top draws in sports.

On the other hand, the Fox numbers seem to indicate that matchups do matter, and that NFL fans will follow a game that they want to see regardless of politics.

We’ll need more data points before we can legitimately call any movement, positive or negative, a trend, and even more data than that before we can accurately say that political protest is the sole, primary, or even a significant reason for any decline.

As we documented last week, there are multiple drivers that have an impact on NFL ratings — lack of a preseason, overall audience dissatisfaction or lack of interest in sports after the pandemic, and so on — but without more information, it’s impossible to rank the strength and validity of these drivers on anything more factual than feelings and hunches.

Regardless, expect the NFL to take a close look at the numbers and adjust its sails to account for which way the wind is blowing. Whereas Thursday night’s game featured a heavy dose of emphasis on the league’s social justice messaging, Sunday night’s — with the exact same production and broadcast team in place — gave little acknowledgement to the stances of the players or the league. Pregame shows on Sunday either placed segments on social justice in the beginning or middle of their broadcasts, well away from the 1 p.m. Eastern kickoff. We’ll have to see if that continues going forward.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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