NFL TV ratings, a look forward: The 2021 NFL regular season has arrived, following a 2020 campaign that saw interest in the sport trend both up and down.
Below, we look at NFL TV ratings and the 2021 season, with the latest updates on the NFL Kickoff Game, the first Sunday Night Football game, the Monday Night Football 2021 debut, the first Thursday Night Football game and more.
Bookmark this page for NFL TV ratings throughout the 2021 season.
Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos clash draws 13.1 million viewers
On a Thursday night when the Cleveland Brown played without Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, NFL fans still tuned in to watch. It was a low-scoring game, with the Browns defeating the Denver Broncos 17-14, but the TV ratings will leave the NFL and its broadcast partners very pleased.
The NFL announced Friday that across all of its platforms, 13.1 million people tuned in to watch the Broncos-Browns clash. It marks a 26% increase from the 2020 Week 7 Thursday Night Football contest.
It represents a positive trend developing in 2021, with the tri-cast TNF games averaging 14.2 million viewers. With the Arizona Cardinals facing the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night in Week 8, NFL TV ratings will likely be even higher.
Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots thriller pulls in huge numbers on CBS
An afternoon matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots delivered an overtime thriller for the fans and brought in a massive audience for CBS. The network’s national game window averaged 23.223 million viewers throughout the broadcast.
Of course, the back-and-forth in the final minutes helped even more. CBS announced that its airing of the Cowboys-Patriots game peaked at 29.71 million viewers in the final minutes of Sunday’s game. Thanks to the wild finish and the marquee teams playing, it was the most-watched national game on CBS in October since 2015.
Another impressive mark for the network, the Jaguars-Dolphins game in London averaged 6.998 million viewers. As a result, it was the most-watched London game in the last five years.
NFL TV ratings for Week 6: Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football
The 2021 NFL season continues to pull in excellent numbers, even when the matchups aren’t ideal from a fan-interest perspective. On NBC in Week 6, the SNF broadcast averaged `6.28 million viewers with a 9.0 rating. While it was a dip from the Bills-Chiefs Week 5 game, that is partially due to the absence of Russell Wilson.
On Monday night, ESPN’s broadcast and stream pulled in 12.52 million viewers (SportsMediaWatch). It represented an 11% spike from a Cardinals-Cowboys clash during the same week in 2020, though it was a dip from numbers seen in 2019.
For Week 7, the Manningcast will return to ESPN2 and ESPN+, with Peyton and Eli Manning hosting the simulcast for the New Orleans Saints vs Seattle Seahawks matchup.
Thursday Night Football opens Week 6 with a bang
Future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned to the primetime stage to open Week 6, facing the Philadelphia Eagles. Unsurprisingly, the Thursday Night Football broadcast pulled in strong ratings once again.
NFL Media announced Friday that 14.5 million viewers tuned in across all platforms to watch the Bucs defeat the Eagles. Broadcasted on NFL Network, FOX, Amazon Prime Video, Twitch, Yahoo Sports and Fox Deportes, NFL ratings spiked 14% from the Week 6 TNF broadcast last year.
Another promising sign, with streaming NFL games becoming more popular, the broadcast drew more than 1.5 million hits via digital platforms. It marks the second-highest for any regular-season NFL game since the league started broadcasting games online.
Week 5 NFL ratings, ESPN lands playoff game
Once again, the National Football League continues to pull in strong numbers for its marquee broadcasts. According to SportsMediaWatch all six featured matchups drew at least 14 million viewers. 14.67 watched Thursday Night Football Week 5 between the Rams and Seahawks, 16.39 million watched CBS broadcast of Dolphins-Buccaneers/Bears-Raiders, the Packers-Bengals game drew 16.45 million viewers, Sunday Night Football averaged 17.52 million viewers in its final numbers and 22 million watched the Giants and Cowboys in FOX’s Game of the Week.
ESPN also announced a partnership with the NFL to broadcast one playoff game each year for the next five seasons. Disney will air a TBD wild-card game on ABC, and ESPN. Furthermore, the ManningCast on ESPN2 and ESPN+ will also simulcast the game.
AFC Championship rematch draws strong numbers for Sunday Night Football
Despite Buffalo and Kansas City not being huge markets, the early numbers for the Week 5 “Sunday Night Football” clash saw an average of 16.78 million viewers with a primetime rating of 4.8 among the 18-49 demo.
It’s a steep fall from the historic pull generated by Tom Brady’s return to Gillette Stadium, but NBC and the NFL continue to dominate whenever games are broadcasted. These are also the early numbers from non-adjusted affiliates, so the ratings will change when everything is finalized.
NFL television ratings climbing through first quarter of 2021 season
After seeing its viewership drop during the 2020 season, the National Football League is faring much better this fall. Since the regular season began, ratings and viewership are skyrocketing across all major networks entering Week 5.
NFL Media announced that its nationally-broadcasted games are averaging 17.3 million viewers per game (TV and digital), a 17% increase from the 2020 season. Better yet, the 21 most-watched shows on TV since September 9 have all been NFL games.
Week 4 proved to be especially strong for the league. 22.3 million tuned in on CBS to watch the Green Bay Packers battle the Pittsburgh Steelers. A few hours later, Tom Brady’s return to Gillette Stadium pulled in 26.7 million viewers for NBC. Week 4 concluded with ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast, which averaged 12.6 million (Sports Media Watch) to watch the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers. It was the most-watched Week 4 MNF game since 2018.
NBC draws huge NFL TV ratings for Buccaneers-Patriots tilt
It was the most-anticipated game of the young NFL season with Tom Brady bringing his Tampa Bay Buccaneers into Gillette to take on his former New England Patriots squad. So many storylines. So much interest.
In what can’t be considered too much of a surprise, this led to historical ratings for NBC’s broadcast of the Week 4 “Sunday Night Football” tilt. According to Deadline, Tampa Bay’s narrow win drew 28.5 million viewers, making it the second most-watched Sunday Night Football” game ever. The most-watched Sunday prime-time game was when the Washington Football Team and Dallas Cowboys battled for the NFC East title in Week 17 of the 2012 campaign. That game drew 30.3 million viewers.
NFL Network pulls in huge numbers for Cincinnati Bengals – Jacksonville Jaguars
because the NFL is required to broadcast all 32 teams at least once on national television, it often uses Thursday Night Football as an avenue for clubs with a smaller fan base. While that was the case in Week 4 when the Cincinnati Bengals face the Jacksonville Jaguars, it still pulled in huge numbers.
NFL Media announced on Monday that 8.5 million viewers watched quarterback Joe Burrow lead Cincinnati to a dramatic comeback over the Jaguars. The audience sized topped the earlier marks from Week 2 and Week 3, giving NFL Network’s exclusive broadcast its most-watched TNF game since 2018.
ESPN pulls in ratings bonanza for Eagles-Cowboys Monday night contest
In what seems to be an early-season theme around the league, NFL TV ratings continue to climb from previous years.
The Dallas Cowboys’ blowout Week 3 win over the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3 drew 14.9 million viewers on ESPN. This represents the most-watched Week 3 “Monday Night Football” Game since all the way back in 2012. It’s also a 40% increase from back in 2019 (Bears-Washington Football Team).
“Additionally, the Eagles-Cowboys viewership continued a viewership trend, as ESPN also notched its most-watched Week 1 game since 2013 and its second most-watched Week 2 game since 2014 to go along with the aforementioned most-watched Week 3 game since 2012,” the Futon Critic noted.
Overall, “Monday Night Football” ratings for ESPN are up double digits from each of the past two seasons. Monday’s Cowboys-Eagles matchup was also the most-watched telecast on TV among all key demos.
NBC draws 20-plus million for Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers
The Week 3 Sunday Night Football clash between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers will go down as one of the best NFL games in 2021. Unsurprisingly, it created ratings gold for NBC and the NFL once again.
NBC announced its Sunday Night Football Week 3 broadcast averaged 21.1 million viewers across NBC TV, Peacock, and the NBC and NFL digital platforms. It marks a 14% increase from the total viewership from last year’s Week 3 game.
Best of all for the network, it was the most-watched Week 3 game since 2015 and marked the third consecutive week NBC drew 20-plus million viewers on Sunday night.
Looking ahead to Week 4, the first battle pitting Tom Brady against Bill Belichick could set an NFL TV ratings record in viewership for a regular-season game.
Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans draw strong numbers to NFL Network
As NFL Network continues to exclusively stream Thursday Night Football to open the 2021 season, the Week 2 matchup between the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers delivered in a big way.
NFL Media reported that its Thursday night broadcast averaged 7.9 million viewers, just passing last week’s New York Giants vs Washington Football Team game (7.33 million). It also easily surpassed the Week 3 TNF matchup from 2020, eclipsing it with a 35% spike.
Unsurprisingly, it was the most-watched program on television Thursday night. A year after the NFL saw its ratings drip, the league is roaring back with huge numbers a year before its new media rights contracts even kick in.
Monday Night Football delivers in Week 2, Manningcast ratings spike
The introduction of the Peyton Manning and Eli Manning broadcast team is already paying off for Disney. A week after the Manningcast on ESPN2 averaged 800,000 viewers, the increasing awareness of the broadcast led to to a huge spike in Week 2.
ESPN’s standard Monday Night Football broadcast drew more than 12 million viewers. When combined with the overall age from the Manningcacst (1.9 million viewers) and ESPN Deportes resulted in an overall average of 13.81 million between ESPN’s three networks.
With the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles set to face off on on Monday night in Week 3, expect the ratings to be even higher.
Kansas City Chiefs vs Baltimore Ravens Sunday Night Football classic crushes Emmy Awards
On a night when the NFL competed against the 2021 Emmy Awards, which ended a seven-year ratings slide, NBC’s Sunday Night Football came out on top for the television audience.
The Nielsen ratings from Sunday night, per Variety.com, revealed that the Week 2 clash between the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs averaged 16.1 million viewers and received a 4.8 demo rating. By comparison, the Emmys drew 7.4 million viewers to CBS.
It’s another win for the NFL, which continues to see its TV ratings steadily climb this season. The Chiefs-Ravens game drew a 10% spike in viewership compared to the preliminary numbers for the SNF debut. With the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers set to face off on NBC in Week 3, it’s safe to project the audience size will be strong.
Thursday Night Football ratings explode in 2021 return
The 2021 debut of Thursday Night Football, a matchup between the New York Giants and Washington Football Team, likely delivered even better ratings than NFL Network hoped for in Week 2.
According to SportsMediaWatch, the Thursday Night Football opener averaged an estimated 7.33 million viewers on the NFL’s exclusive TV network. It was the largest season-opening audience for TNF since 2017, when 8.08 million people watched the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals.
For comparison, the 2020 TNF opener between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals averaged 6.68 million viewers. Of the three exclusive TNF broadcasts on NFL Network last season, only one exceeded 6 million viewers.
Monday Night Football ratings for Week 1 at eight-year high
The Las Vegas Raiders’ stunning and drama-filled win over the Baltimore Ravens represented the most-watched Week 1 Monday Night Football Game since all the way back in 2013. In total, 15.29 million viewers tuned in. Meanwhile, 800,000 watched the “ManningCast” on ESPN2 with brothers Eli and Peyton.
A lot of this could have had to do with the game itself. Baltimore opened up a 14-0 lead in the first half before the Raiders came storming back. It was their first regular-season game in Vegas with fans in attendance. The game also came to a culmination on this touchdown pass from Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in overtime.
NFL releases Week 1 ratings information
Here’s a breakdown of the numbers from the league itself.
- 100 million viewers tuned in during the three-day opening slate.
- The Week 1 average was 17.4 million viewers, up 7% from a season ago.
- 232 billion total minutes consumed. The largest Week 1 total since 2016.
- NBC averaged 22.8 million viewers for its two games, an increase of 11% from last season.
Sunday Night Football ratings for Week 1
After NBC cashed in with a massive audience for the NFL Kickoff Game, its numbers dipped on Sunday Night Football. The Week 1 primetime clash between the Rams and Bears averaged 17.6 million viewers and finished with a 9.6 rating.
It’s a notable drop from the numbers last season. In 2020, the SNF opener between the Cowboys and Rams averaged 18.94 million viewers with a 10.4 rating. Also of note, just seven of NBC’s Sunday night broadcasts averaged 17-plus million viewers last season.
Cord-cutting might play one factor in the declining ratings across television. Cord-cutting has resulted in an estimated 12.82 million cable subscriptions since 2019, per MoffettNathanson, and it’s estimated 27 million households have cut since 2014.
Moving forward, the NFL may attempt to feature teams like the Cowboys, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers to aid ratings for the SNF opener.
Tampa Bay-Dallas NFL Kickoff Game TV ratings best in a half-decade
Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand reported that the Dallas-Tampa Bay 15.9 overnight rating was up 16% from 2020’s opener between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. It was also a five-year high in overnights.
Ourand noted that the rating figure doesn’t include out-of-home viewing. In other words, it was a raging success. That’s what happens when you pit the GOAT QB in Brady against the NFL’s highest-paid player in 2021 in Prescott, who also happens to play for the most valuable sports franchise.
NFL continues to get good news to start the preseason
NFL Network’s broadcast of the Washington Football Team and New England Patriots game on Aug. 12 drew the highest TV ratings for a preseason game on the flagship station since all the way back in 2018. The matchup saw 1.75 million viewers tune in.
This is especially significant in that the preseason game went up directly against MLB’s Field of Dream Game between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox, which also drew historical ratings from a television perspective.
Pro Football Hall of Fame Game was NFL ratings bonanza
A total of 7.31 million viewers tuned in to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ win over the Dallas Cowboys earlier in August, marking the highest-rated preseason broadcast since all the way back in 2017. There’s good reason for this. The entire 2020 preseason was canceled due to COVID-19 and fans were desperate for some football action.
To put this into perspective, the 2021 NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns drew an average of 9.91 million viewers (more on that later). This just goes to show us that the NFL is still America’s pastime.
2021 NFL Draft was the third-most watched ever
There wasn’t a ton of drama atop the 2021 draft with the Jacksonville Jaguars eyeing Trevor Lawrence at one and the New York Jets linked to BYU’s Zach Wilson with the second selection. However, intrigue when it came to the San Francisco 49ers trading up to No. 3 led to continued uptick in viewership with the annual event seeing its third-highest ratings ever.
“Per a league press release, the 2021 NFL Draft was seen by an average audience of 6.1 million viewers (TV and digital) across NFL Network, ABC, ESPN, ESPN Deportes and digital channels during the three-day event, making it the third most-watched draft ever,” NFL Media noted. “The three most-watched drafts in NFL history have occurred in the last three years: 2019 (6.2 million), 2020 (8.3 million), 2021 (6.1 million).”
Continued interest in the NFL Draft is a great thing for the league. It started out as nothing more than a niche event for the most hardcore of fans. Now, it’s a three-day event that shows just how popular the NFL is compared to the other three major North American professional sports leagues. Don’t expect this to change in 2022 with the draft heading to Las Vegas.
Super Bowl LV in review: TV ratings
Perhaps, fans were not excited to see Tom Brady play in his 10th Super Bowl. There’s a good chance that the lack of parties due to the COVID-19 pandemic played a role, too. Either way, Super Bowl LV between the eventual champion Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs represented the worst ratings for the big game since all the way back in 1969.
According to Sports Media Watch, the game drew the lowest ratings for a championship bout in the league since Super Bowl III between the then-Baltimore Colts and New York Jets.
“It was just the seventh Super Bowl with less than a 40 rating, and the first since 1990 (49ers-Broncos: 39.0) — snapping a 30-year streak.”
That specific Super Bowl matchup saw Joe Montana and the 49ers defeat John Elway’s Denver Broncos by the score of 55-10, the biggest blowout in the history of the big game.
NFL TV ratings were a mixed back throughout the 2020 season. The pandemic coupled with an election year and political divisiveness around the United States played a major role in this. With the league struggling revenue-wise due to COVID-19, seeing one of the lowest-rated Super Bowls in NFL history can’t be seen as a great thing.
NFL ratings decline had networks scrambling in 2020
This site has focused on the up-and-down NFL TV ratings for the 2020 season. Not much of that had to to with networks and their relationships with sponsors as a decline became obvious around around the football world. Whether it’s the ongoing pandemic or something else, said decline forced networks to scramble and strengthen relationships with sponsors.
“TV networks are feeling the strains of disappointing NFL ratings, as they are forced to restructure deals with advertisers to make up for the smaller audience, and their opportunity to make money off remaining games during the lucrative holiday season narrows,” the Wall Street Journal reported this past weekend.
Those close to this situation called it “unheard of.” Some of the broadcast networks, such as CBS and Fox, even considered having advertisers pay less than what they had originally pledged to air ads during NFL games.
2020 in review: Monday Night Football ratings
Before the 2020 NFL season began, ESPN worked desperately to lure in a broadcasting crew that would entertain fans and increase viewership. After missing out on Tony Romo, Peyton Manning and even Sean McVay, ESPN settled on its backup plan.
Unfortunately for the network, in a year that saw the company lay off 300-plus employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL ratings took a major hit. Monday Night Football was already the lesser football package for NFL games and the decline in viewership didn’t help in 2020.
- Monday Night Football, Week 12: 11.38 million viewers and 3.4 rating, per SportsMediaWatch, tuned in for Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles game.
- MNF, Week 11: 12.61 million viewers and 3.6 rating (18-49) for Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers battle.
- MNF, Week 10: 11.45 million viewers, 3.2 rating for Monday night’s NFC North battle between Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.
- MNF, Week 9: 10.22 million viewers and 2.8 rating for the New England Patriots and New York Jets matchup.
- MNF, Week 8: 11.7 million viewers, 3.5 rating (18-49 demographic) for ESPN’s Buccaneers and New York Giants broadcast.
- MNF, Week 7: 10.91 million viewers, another dip for MNF, for Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams game.
- MNF, Week 6: 11.32 million viewers watched the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys on ESPN.
- MNF, Week 5: 10.69 million tuned in for the Los Angeles Chargers and New Orleans Saints clash.
- MNF, Week 4: 8.65 million people watched the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, the lowest-rated MNF game of the NFL season.
- MNF, Week 3: 14.7 million viewers witnessed the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens square off, a huge boom for ESPN.
- MNF, Week 2: 15.59 million watched the New Orleans Saints and las Vegas Raiders, the most-watched MNF game this season. The NFL’s first nationally-televised game with a Las Vegas team was gold for ratings.
- MNF, Week 1: ESPN’s MNF double-header, featuring the Steelers-Giants and Titans-Broncos game showed the first signs of NFL ratings taking a hit.
In comparison: 2021 NBA Finals and NFL TV ratings
The NBA and its players were the most active in calling for systemic change in the United States and supporting the Black Lives Matter message last year. This created somewhat of a split between those on either side of the political line.
What we do know is that the 2021 NBA Finals between the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks and upstart Phoenix Suns did not draw great ratings.
- Game 1: 8.56 million
- Game 2: 9.38 million
- Game 3: 9.02 million
- Game 4: 10.25 million
- Game 5: 9.55 million
- Game 6: 12.52 million
This comes after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020 NBA Finals win over the Miami Heat drew a record low average of 7.45 million viewers in the Orlando Bubble.
In comparing to the NFL, there’s really no competition here.
- Super Bowl LV (Chiefs-Buccaneers): 91.63 million
- NFC Championship Game (Buccaneers-Packers): 44.77 million
- AFC Championship Game (Bills-Chiefs): 41.85 million
- NFC Playoffs (Buccaneers-Saints): 35.46 million
- NFC Playoffs (Rams-Packers): 26.5 million
- AFC Playoffs (Browns-Chiefs): 34.33 million
- AFC Playoffs (Ravens-Bills): 26.34 million
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Author: Vincent Frank