The Top Rated NFL Games Are Not On Primetime
For an unprecedented ten straight years, NBC’s Sunday Night Football has been television’s top rated primetime program. For the past 13 years however, the top-rated program on all of television has been the late Sunday afternoon national game on Fox, branded as “America’s Game of the Week”. With kick-off typically at 4:30 p.m. (ET), and despite a continuing fragmented video landscape, the late game on Fox has been averaging 20+ million viewers for a number of seasons. Additionally, the late afternoon games on CBS typically delivers a higher audience than any primetime game. Fox and CBS alternative which network will televise the late national afternoon game. This year the first and last week (Week 18) of season Fox and CBS will both televise two games on Sunday afternoon.
In a year when viewing to popular television programs have been dropping notably, the NFL has maintained its popularity and has even increased ratings by 5% year-over-year. Furthermore, in 2021, NFL games accounted for 75 of the 100 most watched programs on television. Because of their overwhelming popularity (compared to other programs), marketers continue to pay a premium for in-game advertising.
Reflective of the audience delivery, data from Standard Media Index reveal, for the first two months of the 2021 regular season (September-October), the average cost of a :30 ad in late Sunday games on Fox was $676,000, an ad rate greater than NBC’s Sunday Night Football at $615,000. By comparison, the average cost for the CBS late Sunday game was $495,000.
According to Sports Media Watch, through the first 17 weeks of the 2021 season, the late Sunday game was the most watched NFL game of the week 13 times. Sunday Night Football out performed the late Sunday games just once; during the highly anticipated matchup of Tom Brady of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs returning to Foxborough to face his former team, the New England Patriots (Week 4). The three other weeks were the Opening Weekend with the Kick-off Classic (Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay) and games on Thanksgiving and Christmas. All told, this season, there have been 21 NFL telecasts that averaged over 20 million viewers, 15 of them were late Sunday games.
The Green Bay Packers, the top seeded team in the NFC, had six late game appearances, more than any other team. The Dallas Cowboys was next with five appearances. (Cowboys games accounted for three of the five highest rated late afternoon games of the season.) Last year’s Super Bowl participants (Tampa Bay Bucs and Kansas Chiefs) followed with four each. With restrictions on the number of primetime appearances a team can make, the Packers, Cowboys, Bucs and Chiefs all appeared three times on Sunday Night Football (including the Kick-off Classic).
The four highest rated late games all aired on Fox. In Week 11, a marquee matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs (93% coverage) averaged 28.1 million viewers. The week 17 late afternoon game with the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals averaged 26.8 million viewers. Both contests delivered a higher audience than any primetime game this season.
Other top-rated late games on Fox include Week 12 with the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams (91% coverage), averaging 24.7 million viewers and week 9, the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs (93% coverage) averaged 24.4 million viewers. The top-rated CBS late game was early in the season (Week 2) Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers (91% coverage) which averaged 24.3 million viewers.
Once again, the top-rated regular season game aired on Thanksgiving. This year the Dallas Cowboys and Las Vegas Raiders game (Week 12) on CBS averaged 37.8 million viewers, making it the highest rated regular season game since 1990. The second highest rated regular season game aired on Christmas (Week 16). The matchup featured Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns and averaged 28.6 million viewers on Fox and the NFL Network.
No surprise, both Holiday games started in the late afternoon.