NFL Viewership Is Down but Far From Being in Trouble

2020 has been an unpredictable year for the entire professional and college sports landscape due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). That said, the NFL found a way to return safely. They’ve had some bumps in the road so far, but overall most of the games have gone off without a hitch. They have had one recurring issue, however: ratings are down. 

So what’s happening in the NFL this season that’s caused ratings to drop? Will the dip be a long term problem for the league? While the NFL likely never wants to see its ratings drop, there’s reason to believe the league is far from being in trouble. 

How were the NFL viewership ratings in 2019? 

According to, NFL ratings grew for the second straight year in 2019. The league has several networks signed on to its football package, including Fox, NBC, ESPN, CBS, and of course, the NFL Network. Regular season games last year averaged over 16 million viewers — a 4% spike from 2018. It was also the most-viewed regular-season since 2016. 

2017 saw a significant dip for the league with viewership plummeting under 15 million, so the last three years have seen the reversal of that. The biggest growth last season was seen by Fox, who saw its Thursday and Sunday offerings raise by 7% in viewership with late Sunday games up 10% to over 24 million viewers.

To put this in comparison to the rest of the television lineup, NFL football would easily be the highest rated Nielsen program. That’s where the ratings were last season when business was good. How has the league responded in the face of a global pandemic? 

How are the NFL television ratings in 2020? 

Sports Business Daily reports that through the first four weeks of the NFL season, ratings are actually down. NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the program showcasing what is typically the league’s marquee game of the week, is down in the ratings almost 14%.

CBS’s lineup of games is gone as well. At least one TV executive doesn’t see the ratings drop as a huge issue, however. ESPN exec Burke Magnus said in the Sports Business Daily article it’s merely a blip on the radar: 

“NFL content is still incredibly powerful. These are massive audiences. We take a lot of solace in the fact that NFL games are the most powerful content on television and people continue to show up in huge numbers. We’re not going to get all twisted up about ratings.”

So what’s going on with the NFL? Why are ratings down? 

Reasons why NFL viewership might be down

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So why is NFL viewership down so significantly? One of the biggest reasons has to be the pandemic. While lockdowns have kept more people at home than ever, it’s also caused significant economic unrest and uncertainty.

People act unpredictably in times of crisis, and it’s entirely possible that ratings are down due to the cascading issues associated with the Coronavirus.

There’s also the question of how the player-led demonstrations to shed light on the issues of racial injustice and police brutality have affected these numbers as well. Simply put, some fans would prefer to bury their head in the sand and not hear these messages during a program they see as entertainment. 

The NFL is still doing solid numbers compared to other shows, however. It’s also critical to remember that the NFL was up against other pro sports it never had to compete with. The NBA and NHL playoffs extended into September.

They’re now concluded, so it’s just MLB up against the NFL for another few days until the World Series wraps. Then the NFL has the sports calendar to itself for quite a while. 

When compared to the NFL’s past performance, this year’s numbers might not look so hot. But when you compare it to any other number of programs on TV this year, those numbers look a lot better.

The bottom line is that when a society experiences difficulty, entertainment like pro sports is needed. The NFL has taken over as the new national pastime, and these somewhat declining ratings figures don’t mean that’s going to change any time soon.