Tracking the NFL’s Biggest Games and Most Reliable Teams: Data Viz

Anthony Crupi
·6 min read

An unorthodox Sunday NFL schedule gave way to a week of steep ratings declines for the league’s network partners, which are currently 8% off the pace compared to last season’s deliveries.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, five of the six Week 10 broadcast windows suffered double-digit audience declines, marking the first time this season that all year-to-year losses were 10% or greater. The lone exception was the front end of Fox’s Sunday doubleheader, which scared up 18.2 million viewers and a 10.2 household rating, up 72% and 62%, respectively, versus the analogous early window in 2019. In doing so, Fox earned bragging rights to its most-watched regional NFL window since 2009.

Fox’s 1 p.m. ET window was stuffed with six regional matchups, a bounty made possible by CBS’s coverage of the final round of the Masters Tournament. Other than the action from Augusta, which averaged a record low 5.59 million viewers and a 3.4 rating, Fox had the early portion of the afternoon all to itself.

With no clear-cut favorite in the 4:20 p.m. window, Sunday’s nominal national slot functioned like a second regional offering. While Fox shipped Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to Los Angeles to cover the Seahawks-Rams game, distribution of the late-afternoon shift was equally divided between that NFC West showdown, the Steelers’ 36-10 thrashing of the Bengals and San Francisco’s listless performance in New Orleans. This diffusion impacted Fox’s ratings somewhat, as the network posted its lowest deliveries (20.1 million, 10.7 rating) for a so-called national window since the season began.

But as is evident in the chart below, Fox is hardly reeling from that setback. Sunday’s window now stands as the season’s ninth most-watched NFL outing, giving the afternoon broadcasts dominion over eight of the top 10 games and 12 of the top 15. Meanwhile, NBC has a virtual hegemony over the highest-ranked primetime games, as Sunday Night Football is responsible for nine of the season’s 10 most-watched nighttime NFL broadcasts. (SNF also ranks first among all primetime TV programs in total viewership and the 18-49 demo.)

While the SNF audience has contracted at a rate of 18% since the season began (the broadcasts are averaging 16.5 million TV viewers per game versus 20.2 million in the year-ago interval), those losses are happening in the midst of an unprecedented drop in primetime deliveries. Through the first 57 days of the 2020-21 broadcast season, overall viewership of the Big Four networks is down 30% on a prorated basis, as CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox collectively are averaging 19.7 million viewers, which works out to a loss of 8.3 million viewers per night.

The erosion at the network level isn’t commensurate with the more manageable declines in overall TV consumption. Including ad-supported cable and premium channels like HBO and Showtime, total TV usage is down 11% year-over-year.

If not nearly as many Americans are whiling away the hours in front of their TVs this fall, those who haven’t quite kicked the habit seem hell-bent on following our nation’s interminable political soap opera to the bitter end. While tune-in for the cable news networks has fallen steeply compared to the week of the election, the primetime Fox News Channel/CNN/MSNBC deliveries for Nov. 9-Nov. 15 were up 41% compared to the year-ago period, with 8.24 million viewers in the mix. On Sunday night, the three nets conspired to steal some of broadcast TV’s thunder, pulling an aggregate audience of nearly 4 million viewers in prime, which marked a 34% lift compared to the year-ago evening.

As much as it’s unlikely that the NFL in 2020 will erase its entire ratings deficit, the remainder of the schedule suggests that the networks may have a chance to claw back some of their lost impressions down the homestretch. The league’s top 10 draws, which include Dallas, New Orleans and Tampa Bay (see chart below) are slated to appear in another 24 national TV windows between now and season’s end, an itinerary that includes two Thanksgiving Day games, six 4:20 p.m. showcases and 10 primetime NBC windows.

While a few of the teams on the list might trigger an involuntary shudder of mild revulsion—the 2-7 Cowboys? the 4-6 49ers?—much of what’s on the schedule today is unlikely to be flexed out or otherwise finessed. The last time Dallas was dumped from a national window was in December of 2017, and while Jerry Jones’ charges haven’t won a game since Dak Prescott was lost to a catastrophic ankle injury back in Week 5, membership in the NFC East has its privileges.

In what is shaping up to be a grim war of attrition, the division race may come down to whichever team manages to scrape together six victories. Sure, this is the lousiest brand of parity, the kind where every franchise is uniformly awful, but somebody’s gotta win this thing. If it all comes down to that Dec. 27 Eagles-Cowboys clash on Fox, you’re probably going to watch.

Elsewhere, the networks may have lucked out in scheduling the last three big Saints games for late in the season; with New Orleans not due to appear in another national broadcast until Dec. 13, that should give Drew Brees ample time to rest his battered rib cage. And while the Steelers’ TV coverage thus far has not reflected their unblemished record—Pittsburgh to date has appeared in just two national broadcasts, although a third (a regional meeting with Tennessee that was carried in 88% of CBS’s markets) arguably fits the bill—their Turkey Day clash with Baltimore should make up for lost time. Since NBC began airing the primetime Thanksgiving broadcast back in 2012, the holiday game has averaged 21.4 million viewers and a 10.6 rating.

Season-to-date, all regional and national NFL broadcasts are averaging 14.6 million viewers and an 8.1 rating, down 8% and 12%, respectively, compared to the year-ago 15.8 million/9.2. Viewers in the dollar demo are down 11% to 5.48 million adults 18-49, and while that’s not especially welcome news for in-game advertisers, it’s also a far less vertiginous drop-off than the broadcast average. On a prorated basis, the Big Four nets have lost nearly one-quarter of their adults-under-50 audience since the season began in September.

On average, NFL broadcasts are out-delivering network entertainment programming in the demo by a factor of 7-to-1.

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