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NFL television ratings see 6 percent decline at midseason point

The NFL's Sunday night ratings are down, as was Tom Brady after a blowout loss to the Saints last Sunday night.Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

The NFL was not expected to be immune from the ratings declines that have hit all sports this year because of the coronavirus pandemic and presidential election. But the declines are not as bad as feared at the beginning of the season.

Games are averaging 15.1 million television and digital viewers, according to the league and Nielsen, a 6 percent decline from last year. Despite the decreases, all but four of the top 30 shows since the season began have been NFL games.

“Considering all the issues the NFL has had to deal with, the ratings are OK,” said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs his own sports television consulting company. “It hasn’t been a great year for ratings considering everything that has happened, but they aren’t in the toilet either.”


Sports consultant Marc Ganis cited the lack of preseason games to build up fan interest, and all four major professional sports playing in September as other reasons for this year’s slow start.

The ratings also didn’t suffer precipitous declines compared with the last presidential election cycle in 2016, when they were down 14 percent compared with 2015.

“I know there have been lots of, well, ‘NFL ratings are down.’ Not really. Election years, they’ve been going down for the last three election cycles, not just the last one,” Ganis said. “The NFL ratings have actually been quite good. They’re going to get better now that the election is over. The gap between the NFL and all the other sports in terms of TV ratings has grown. So the NFL has gotten stronger vis a vis other sports.”

The Thursday and Sunday night packages have suffered the biggest declines with each package down 16 percent.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is averaging 17.2 million and remains on pace to be prime-time’s top show for the 10th straight year. There were five straight weeks when NBC’s games faced competition from NBA or MLB playoff games.


Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels have had some rough games to work with lately.Tony Avelar/Associated Press

NBC has had tough luck the past two weeks. It had Dallas-Philadelphia on Nov. 1 while the New Orleans-Tampa Bay matchup last Sunday was a blowout by halftime. The first half this past week averaged 18.9 million viewers, which was the highest since the Cowboys-Rams game in Week 1.

Fox is averaging 12.8 million for “Thursday Night Football.” Some factors in their lower audiences include one of their games being moved to a late Monday afternoon (Kansas City-Buffalo) and another going against the final presidential debate (Giants-Eagles).

“I think the election was kind of a pivotal moment. We have seen the skyrocketing of cable news ratings. Now that the election [story] is nearing an end I think people will go back to kind of normal consumption patterns. So we think we have weathered the storm,” NBC Sports Group chairman Pete Bevacqua said. “We really believe with the schedule, particularly with us having the ability to flex games, should be unbelievably strong as we enter into the second half of the season.”

It’s not all bad news for primetime packages: ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” numbers were flat through the first eight weeks at 11.71 million.

Brady, Bucs motivated

The Carolina Panthers are expecting to see a highly motivated Tom Brady on Sunday.

Brady and the Buccaneers are looking to bounce back after an embarrassing 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints last Sunday night on national television, a total team collapse that coach Bruce Arians called “shocking.”


It was the most lopsided loss of Brady’s career, with the six-time Super Bowl champion throwing three interceptions for the first time in nearly a decade and held out of the end zone despite a talented supporting cast that includes Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette.

Arians is well aware that a defeat of such magnitude can affect a team’s confidence.

But he’s confident it won’t as the Bucs (6-3) look to get right against the struggling Panthers (3-6), who have lost four straight and will again be without running back Christian McCaffrey, who is recovering from a shoulder injury.

“I don’t think our confidence is shaken one bit,” Arians said.

Bruce Arians doesn't sound concerned.Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

Brady was noticeably frustrated throughout the game, but pointed the finger at himself afterward saying “everyone’s got to do a lot better, and it starts with me.”

“Learn from it. You don’t bury your head in the sand — you own it,” Arians said.

The Buccaneers beat the Panthers, 31-17, in Week 2, but Carolina seemed to solve Brady and the Bucs passing game in the second half — something that could bear watching on Sunday.