While it came with several caveats attached, Sunday’s telecast of the Masters on CBS recorded the major tournament’s lowest final-round numbers since 1957, extending a streak of soft sports TV viewership numbers.
The broadcast averaged a 3.4 rating and 5.59 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That is about 51% lower than last year, when Tiger Woods recorded a comeback win, and also well below the previous lows of 6.7 in 1980 and 11.05 million viewers in 2017. (Viewership has been tracked since 1995.) In 1957, CBS aired one hour of coverage and drew a 3.0.
Initially seen as a savior for the TV business in a COVID-19-ravaged 2020, sports broadcasts in general have posted some unsettlingly soft numbers. The NBA Finals and World Series in October drew all-time low viewership and the Stanley Cup Final and major horseracing events have also stumbled badly. Last week at the Paley Center International Council Summit, commissioners of the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball blamed the poor ratings on various factors, including the lack of fans in attendance.
Many an asterix must be attached to the Masters ratings, of course. The pandemic forced the April tournament into November for the first time, not only altering its usual azalea-bedecked aesthetic but also pitting it against NFL football. Because of the mass-audience NFL, including late-afternoon games on CBS, the network and tournament organizers agreed to an earlier Sunday schedule. Fans were also not allowed to attend the event in Augusta, GA, as has been the case with almost all PGA tournaments held since June.
What’s more, winner Dustin Johnson also set a Masters record at 20 below par and his victory was never in doubt on Sunday. That decisive showing plus the earlier hour precluded the kind of tune-in that has come in years when when multiple players jockey in the final holes, sometimes even into a playoff.
NFL games continue to be a beacon of hope, even if they are not quite equaling previous viewership levels. As of the midway point in the season, games are averaging 15.1 million TV and digital viewers, the league and Nielsen said, which is off 6% from 2019. All but four of the top 30 programs on TV have been NFL games since the season began in September.
The finish to the NFL season and its playoffs in January will be a potential test for TV networks and league stakeholders, as will the end of the college football season. In a traditional year, the college season is reaching its regular-season climax by this point, followed by the four-team playoff to determine the national champion by the second week of January. With dozens of games canceled or postponed, the college season is in an uncertain state, with coverage of the playoffs on ESPN and ABC potentially shifting later in 2021.
The NFL, which has not had to cancel any games thus far despite more than 200 positive COVID-19 tests has reaffirmed its plans to play Super Bowl as scheduled on February 7 in Tampa Bay, FL. CBS has broadcast rights to the game.