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NFL, college football continue TV ratings dominance with upsets and thrillers: Sports on TV

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

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

That’s the network’s most-watched Week 1 regional window since the NFL returned to CBS in 1998, the broadcaster said. Week 1 was up 21 percent over the same window a year ago.

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

CBS’ afternoon national window averaged 16.61 million, with most of the nation seeing the Chiefs blow out the Cardinals while most of the West Coast along with Nevada and Utah got Raiders-Chargers. That window couldn’t match last year’s Chiefs-Browns rematch of a 2020 playoff game, which propelled 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 4:30 pm national window that averaged 18.54 million viewers for Packers-Vikings, which was seen by most of the country, with the Giants-Titans broadcast around Tennessee and New York and some of New England. That was up 12 percent over 2021’s equivalent window.

Last season, CBS’ early regional window in Week 1 averaged 13.93 million, while its afternoon national window averaged 19.53 million viewers. On Fox in 2021, the early regional window averaged 11.18 million while the afternoon national window averaged 16.23 million during the 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 + streaming) for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast, the network said, which would make it the best SNF opener audience since Giants-Cowboys averaged 26.9 million in 2015. The number is based on data for linear NBC, Peacock, NBC Sports and NFL digital platforms, the network said. Tom Brady and the Cowboys have both long been major TV draws, so it’s little surprise the network, given the chance, would showcase 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 (on Week 1’s actual Sunday, not the SNF-branded Thursday prime-time opener) averaged 18.6 million. “Sunday Night Football” has been the most-watched prime-time program across all US television for 11 years.

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

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

What does it all mean? The NFL numbers continue to be incredible in light of the continued roiled state of the TV industry, which is dealing with overall viewership declines as tens of millions of US homes drop cable in favor of streaming or even nothing at all. The pandemic accelerated some of the industry trends, yet the NFL remains one of the lesser-affected TV properties.

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

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

That said, the NFL’s stranglehold on American TV is astounding. Up next is a challenge to that: The Chargers and Chiefs kick off at 8:15 pm Thursday for the season’s first “Thursday Night Football” streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Amazon-owned Twitch while being on TV only in the Los Angeles and Kansas City local markets. TNF averaged 16.4 million combined viewers on Fox, NFL Network, and Amazon last season, and Amazon has reportedly told advertisers to expect something like 12 million-plus this season behind the streaming paywall.

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

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

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

The Crimson Tide’s victory peaked with 15.12 million viewers from 3:15-3:30 pm, the network said. Fox said the game was the fourth most-watched in network history, trailing only Ohio State-Michigan games.

Last season, no college game broached double-digit million regular-season viewership until Ohio State-Michigan (15.9 million, Fox) and Alabama-Auburn (10.36 million, CBS) in Week 13, per Sports Media Watch’s audience tracking.

Three other games last week topped 4 million viewers:

  • Clemson’s 41-10 rout of Georgia Tech in primetime on Sept. 5 (a Monday without the NFL) averaged a healthy 4.85 million despite the score differential.
  • On Saturday, Tennessee edging Pitt, 34-27, in overtime on ABC in a midafternoon 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 one should have been a Peacock exclusive?


New head coach Marcus Freeman’s Notre Dame squad 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, knocked off then-No. 6 Texas A&M, 17-14, in College Station in a shocker seen by 1.77 million on Saturday in a late-afternoon kickoff on ESPN2.

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

ABC’s Saturday 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, kickoff time, day of the week, broadcast versus cable, competition on other channels, blowout or thriller, etc.

Audience numbers weren’t immediately available for the Michigan-Hawaii or Ohio State-Arkansas State games on Big Ten Network.

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

It tipped off at 3 pm, which meant some audience was likely siphoned by NFL games. Three of the final games face NFL competition, although Thursday’s Game 3 may suffer less because “Thursday Night Football” now streams on Amazon Prime Video rather than airing nationally on Fox and NFL Network.

A year ago, the Chicago Sky-Phoenix Mercury four-game 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 its best since 2008 and up 21 percent over 2021. With CBS games included, 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, per Sports Media Watch.

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

TENNIS: The US Open saw new names crowned as singles champions last weekend, but ESPN’s audience metrics slipped considerably 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, beating Norway’s Casper Ruud in four sets on ESPN with 2.15 million watching.

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

The tournament earlier enjoyed a TV boost for Williams’ final matches ahead of 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’s history, the network said. It broke the mark of 3.9 million for Roger Federer’s Wimbledon victory 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 the TV networks, Nielsen, Sports Media Watch, ShowBuzz Daily and the leagues. All times Eastern unless otherwise noted.

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

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