No Ratings Bloat for NFL’s Overstuffed Wild Card Weekend

Anthony Crupi
·3 min read

Twenty-two hours of playoff football may have been a bit too much for NFL fans to take in, as this weekend’s supersized Wild Card round failed to live up to ratings expectations.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, deliveries for the sextet of postseason broadcasts were down 22% compared to last year’s standard four-game slate, which marked a more significant drop than the NFL’s 7% decline over the course of the regular season. The rate-of-change is also steeper than the seasonal erosion in overall broadcast TV usage, which is currently -15% versus the analogous period of the 2019-20 campaign.

The top performer from this year’s overstuffed slate was CBS’s Sunday afternoon showdown between the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. That low-scoring game—the point total for the Saints’ 21-9 victory was a far cry from the league’s regular-season average of 49.6 points per game—averaged 28.6 million viewers and a 15.5 household rating, down 29% compared to year-ago time-slot occupant Seahawks-Eagles on NBC. In another low-scoring affair, Seattle eked out a 17-9 win on the road against Philly in a broadcast that averaged 35.1 million viewers and a 19.2 rating.

Ratings for the special kids-friendly Nickelodeon simulcast of the Bears-Saints rumble added another 2.06 million viewers to the mix, bringing the total audience to 30.7 million viewers. Because the Nick telecast carried a separate commercial load from the CBS flagship, the bonus deliveries don’t count toward CBS’s broadcast guarantees.

That Drew Brees & Co. should be instrumental in securing the biggest TV draw of the opening round was a predictable outcome, given that the Saints attracted the second-largest national TV audience during the regular season. (No. 1 Kansas City sat out the first round, having earned the lone AFC bye.) That said, the weekend’s next-biggest draw came as a bit of a surprise, as Cleveland’s upset of Pittsburgh at the mashup of the three rivers averaged 24.8 million viewers and a 13.5 rating in NBC’s Sunday primetime window, edging the day’s Baltimore-Tennessee opener on ESPN/ABC by a mere 164,000 viewers.

As this marked the first time the NFL has scheduled a Wild Card game in the Sunday primetime window, there are no analogous games against which to measure NBC’s Browns-Steelers broadcast. Disney’s presentation of the Ravens-Titans contest was down 18% compared to its 2020 precursor, an overtime Vikings-Saints nail-biter on Fox that averaged 29.9 million viewers.

The deliveries for Disney’s Freeform simulcast will be available later this afternoon.

Saturday’s triple-header gave rise to one decent outcome—Rams-Seahawks on Fox averaged 24 million viewers and a 12.7 rating, making it the third most-watched/highest-rated NFL broadcast of the season thus far—sandwiched by two under-performers. CBS’s Colts-Bills appetizer averaged 20.1 million viewers and an 11.6 rating in the early window, while NBC’s Tampa-Washington capper eked out 21.4 million viewers and an 11.5 rating.

The early CBS broadcast now stands as the least-watched Wild Card game on record, while NBC’s Saturday nightcap is the NFL’s lowest-rated primetime playoff broadcast of the modern Nielsen era.

The bonus Wild Card games cost NBC and CBS some $70 million in additional rights fees.

With an additional two minutes of ad inventory to sell in each playoff game, CBS, NBC and Fox will enjoy another incremental lift during the Divisional round, which should provide a bit of buffer between the networks and the makegoods that are due to advertisers. All told, the bonus eight minutes of in-game real estate this weekend should generate approximately $14.2 million in revenue.

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