TV ratings: NFL draft, Kentucky Derby show 2020 was an outlier

Jay Busbee
·2-min read

As the sports calendar resumes its regular routines and America slowly returns to its pre-pandemic state, it's becoming more clear that, from a ratings perspective, 2020 was an extreme outlier. 

The NFL draft aired in its usual time slot, but 2020's draft was a remarkable one-time event: the first live sporting-adjacent event since the start of the pandemic. That draft drew a remarkable 15.5 million viewers on Day 1, but that figure was sharply boosted because there was literally nothing else for sports fans to watch. 

As a result, 2021's Day 1 total didn't match that figure, though with 12.6 million viewers, this year ranked as the second-highest Day 1 viewership on record, according to the NFL. The draft aired on ABC, ESPN, NFL Network, ESPN Deportes and digital outlets. The draft's Day 1 ratings were up 11 percent overall over 2019, and digital streaming was up 54 percent over 2019. 

The Kentucky Derby returned to its customary slot in the first weekend of May, and NBC reported that preliminary figures indicated a viewing audience of 15 million. That total was larger than any awards show — the more logical comparison to the Derby than sporting events — and the largest audience for any show on NBC since the NFL playoffs.

It wasn't normal, but it was close at the NFL draft. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
It wasn't normal, but it was close at the NFL draft. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Final ratings numbers are due Tuesday. For comparison's sake, 2019's Derby drew a total of 16.3 million viewers, riding the wave of a controversial post-race disqualification. The out-of-season 2020 Derby, held in September, drew an average of 8.3 million viewers. However, even that figure marked the most-watched sporting event since the 2020 NFL draft. 

Trend lines are becoming clearer as more sporting events return to their traditional spots on the calendar. Ratings are returning, if not to their pre-pandemic levels, at least out of the craters most had been in. We'll know more about the full effects of the pandemic and other outside pressures, including political/social justice expressions and competing entertainment sources, once we get a full year's sports calendar complete, but for now, trends appear to be heading toward normalcy. 

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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