NFL, college football continue to dominate TV ratings with suspense, thriller: Sports on TV

The NFL is back and shows zero signs of loosening its grip on US television viewership.

Pittsburgh’s wild overtime win over defending AFC champion Cincinnati — featuring a five-turnover performance from Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow — led CBS’ early Week 1 NFL window that averaged 17.38 million viewers on Sunday.

This is the network’s most-watched regional Week 1 window since the NFL returned to CBS in 1998, the broadcaster said. The first week was up 21 percent compared to the same period a year ago.

Nielsen NFL metrics are by network broadcast windows – 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM, etc. – than for individual games (unless it is a single game). Steelers-Bengals had the most geographic TV coverage, according to a map from 506sports.com, while other early regional CBS games included Dolphins-Patriots, Ravens-Jets, Colts-Texans and Browns-Panthers.

CBS’ national afternoon window averaged 16.61 million, with most of the nation watching the Chiefs blow out the Cardinals while most of the West Coast along with Nevada and Utah took on Raiders-Chargers. That window couldn’t match last year’s Chiefs-Browns matchup of a 2020 playoff game, which drew the network to 19.5 million in the late afternoon.

Fox’s early games were led by 49ers-Bears in a window that averaged 12.14 million viewers, while three others were split regionally: Eagles-Lions, Saints-Falcons and Jaguars-Commanders.

Fox was the big winner with its national 4:30 p.m. window averaging 18.54 million viewers for Packers-Vikings, which was watched by most of the country, with Giants-Titans airing around Tennessee and New York and some from New England. This increased by 12 percent compared to the equivalent window of 2021.

Last season, CBS’ early regional window in Week 1 averaged 13.93 million, while its national afternoon window averaged 19.53 million viewers. On Fox in 2021, the regional early window averaged 11.18 million while the national afternoon window averaged 16.23 million during its opening weekend.

And now the really big numbers from Week 1.

Tampa Bay’s 19-3 win over Dallas averaged 25.1 million total viewers (TV + broadcast) for NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast, the network said, which would make it the best SNF opening audience ever when Giants-Cowboys averaged 26.9 million in 2015. The number is based on data for NBC, Peacock, NBC Sports and NFL linear digital platforms, the network said. Tom Brady and the Cowboys have both long been huge TV draws, so it’s no surprise that the network, given the opportunity, would feature ratings hogs in Week 1.


Tom Brady taking on the Cowboys was a great TV mix for NBC’s first “Sunday Night Football” game of the year. (Kevin Jairaj/USA Today)

Last year’s Bears-Rams SNF opener (the actual Week 1 Sunday, not the SNF-branded prime-time Thursday opener) averaged 18.6 million. “Sunday Night Football” has been the most-watched prime-time program in all of American television for 11 years.

Last Thursday’s season-opening special edition of “Sunday Night Football” averaged 21.7 million viewers for NBC’s telecast of the Bills’ 31-10 victory over the defending champion Rams. A year ago, the SNF-branded Thursday night season opener between Dallas and Tampa Bay averaged 24.81 million viewers. This year’s opening may have lost some audience to the ongoing American coverage of the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

Not yet available: Audience numbers for Seattle’s surprise win over Denver — now backed by former Seahawks star Russell Wilson after a successful offseason trade — on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

What does it all mean? The NFL’s numbers continue to be underwhelming in light of the continued turmoil of the television industry, which is facing overall viewership declines as tens of millions of U.S. homes ditch cable in favor of streaming or nothing at all. The pandemic accelerated some of the industry’s trends, yet the NFL remains one of the least affected television properties.

NFL regular-season games last season averaged 17.1 million viewers, rebounding from 14.9 million during the worst of the pandemic downturn in 2020. The all-time peak was 18.1 million in 2015.

One thing to keep in mind when networks and leagues compare a current game’s audience to anything before 2020 is that Nielsen didn’t measure out-of-home viewing (bars, restaurants, hotels, party viewing at other homes, etc.) until two years ago, and that can add up to 10 percent or more to the audience for an NFL game. This means that games before 2020 are likely to have higher viewership than what is officially reported.

That said, the NFL’s stranglehold on American TV is staggering. Next up is a challenge for this one: The Chargers and Chiefs kick off at 8:15 p.m. Thursday for the season-opening “Thursday Night Football” broadcast on Amazon Prime Video and Amazon-owned Twitch while on TV only in Los Angeles and Kansas . Local markets of the city. TNF averaged 16.4 million combined viewers on Fox, NFL Network and Amazon last season, and Amazon has reportedly told advertisers to expect about 12 million more this season after paying for streaming.

(And here’s how to find all the live games amid a confusing landscape of networks and broadcasters in 2022.)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: A weekend of wild games and upsets was led by one of the game’s powerhouses — on the field and on TV — with 10.59 million on Fox watching Alabama fight back to beat Texas, 20-19.

That was the network’s “Big Noon” game and comes a week after the other two college football audiences, Ohio State and Notre Dame, averaged 10.53 million in prime time on ABC.

The Crimson Tide win peaked with 15.12 million viewers from 3:15-3:30 p.m., the network said. Fox said the game was the fourth most-watched in network history, behind only the Ohio State-Michigan games.

Last season, no college game reached double-digit million regular-season viewers until Ohio State-Michigan (15.9 million, Fox) and Alabama-Auburn (10.36 million, CBS) in Week 13, according to audience tracking Sports Media Watch.

Three other games last week reached 4 million viewers:

  • Clemson’s 41-10 rout of Georgia Tech in primetime on Sept. 5 (a non-NFL Monday) averaged 4.85 million despite the score difference.
  • On Saturday, Tennessee beat Pitt, 34-27, in overtime on ABC in the noon kickoff averaged 4.45 million viewers.
  • Kentucky’s 26-16 win over host Florida in primetime Saturday on ESPN averaged 4.33 million viewers.

In other interesting matchups, 2.47 million watched Marshall thunder into South Bend and stun Notre Dame, 26-21, in a Saturday afternoon kickoff on NBC. Maybe this should have been a Peacock exclusive?


New coach Marcus Freeman’s Notre Dame team is 0-3 after a stunning home loss to Marshall in front of 2.47 million viewers on NBC. (Matt Cashore/USA Today)

Appalachian State, perhaps best known to many fans for its historic upset of Michigan in 2007, went down at that time. 6 Texas A&M, 17-14, in College Station in a shocker seen by 1.77 million Saturday in a late afternoon kickoff on ESPN2.

Georgia Southern’s 45-42 road upset of Nebraska in primetime Saturday on FS1 averaged 1.24 million viewers.

Saturday’s ABC prime-time broadcast of USC beating Stanford, 41-28, averaged 2.9 million.

A reminder that sports viewership is driven by many factors: matchup, storylines, star players, start time, day of the week, broadcast vs. cable, competition on other channels, breakout or thriller, etc.

Audience numbers were not immediately available for the Michigan-Hawaii or Ohio State-Arkansas State games on the Big Ten Network.

WNBA: Game 1 of the WNBA Finals averaged 555,000 viewers for the Las Vegas Aces who topped the Connecticut Sun, 67-64, on Sunday on ABC.

It tipped off at 3 p.m., which meant a portion of the audience was likely tuned in from NFL games. Three of the final games face NFL competition, though Thursday’s Game 3 may suffer less because “Thursday Night Football” now airs on Amazon Prime Video instead of nationally on Fox and NFL Network.

A year ago, the four-game Chicago Sky-Phoenix Mercury Finals averaged 548,000 viewers on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. That was the best WNBA Finals audience average since 559,000 in 2017.

The W’s 2022 regular season viewership on Disney-owned networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ABC) averaged 372,000 per game and was the best since 2008 and up 21 percent from 2021. With including CBS games, WNBA games averaged 379,000 viewers this season.

The league’s playoffs heading into the finals were an even bigger success story, averaging 439,000 viewers on ESPN networks — the best average since 2002, according to Sports Media Watch.

Game 2 of the Finals is at 9pm Tuesday with the Suns at Aces, and Game 3 is 9pm Thursday, both on ESPN. A Game 4 will be at 4 p.m. Sunday, and a Game 5 will be at 9 p.m. Sept. 20, also on ESPN.

TENNIS: The US Open saw new names crowned as singles champions last weekend, but ESPN’s audience metrics fell sharply without Serena Williams or the iconic men’s names that have dominated for so long.

Spain’s 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz won the men’s singles title on Sunday, defeating Norway’s Casper Ruud in four sets on ESPN with 2.15 million viewers.

On the women’s side, Iga Świątek of Poland beat Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in straight sets on Saturday. The match averaged 1.77 million viewers.

The tournament previously enjoyed a television boost for Williams’ final matches before retirement. The GOAT’s three-set third-round loss to Ajla Tomljanovic on Sept. 2 averaged 4.8 million viewers, making it the largest tennis audience in ESPN history, the network said. It broke the mark of 3.9 million for Roger Federer’s Wimbledon win in 2012.

ESPN reportedly agreed to pay the USTA $770 million starting in 2015 for 11 years of exclusive US Open broadcast rights. CBS had previously held the rights for 45 years.

All viewership data is from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics, and other metrics via TV networks, Nielsen, Sports Media Watch, ShowBuzz Daily and leagues. All Eastern Time unless otherwise noted.

(Feature photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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