A 24-point fourth-quarter lead and a host of other high-impact sports options on the dial conspired to put a dent in the ratings for the first NFL broadcast of the Coronavirus era, as the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs served up the second smallest audience for a season opener in the last decade on Thursday night.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC’s primetime presentation of the Patrick Mahomes Air Show averaged 20.3 million viewers and an 11.2 household rating across the linear broadcast network and various digital platforms. That marks an 11% decline compared to the year-ago average (22.7 million viewers) and a 13% loss versus the 12.9 rating secured by the analogous Packers-Bears broadcast.
While NBC put in for a rush order of the ratings data (processing delays related to the Labor Day holiday normally keep those numbers under wraps until the following Monday), it’s worth noting that Thursday night’s stats do not include deliveries related to the out-of-home audience, which could sprinkle an additional million-plus viewers into the mix. That said, the nationwide coronavirus closures are likely to reduce the impact of those non-standard impressions; while NFL broadcasts generally see a 12% ratings boost courtesy of bar, restaurant and gym patrons, some buyers expect the lift to be in the 5% to 7% range.
At present, the Texans-Chiefs game stands as the least-watched NFL opener since the 2018 Falcons-Eagles game, a joyless 18-12 slog that was marred by a 45-minute weather delay and 26 penalties. That broadcast averaged 19.5 million viewers across all TV and digital outlets, making it NBC’s lowest-performing Kickoff Game since 2008, when the New York Giants and Washington eked out just 13.5 million viewers and an 8.1 household rating.
That long-ago NFC East grudge match was hampered by an early start time; NBC pushed the 2008 Kickoff Game from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. EDT in order to accommodate the news division’s primetime coverage of the Republican National Convention. This time around, a less-than-competitive game (after two garbage-time Texans touchdowns and a Chiefs field goal, the home team won 34-20) and a host of alternative programming options likely contributed to the bulk of the ratings declines.
NBC notched its biggest NFL opener back in 2010, when the Vikings and Saints scared up 27.5 million TV viewers and a 16.5 household rating in a rematch of their instant-classic NFC Championship Game duel from earlier that same year. The Saints’ 31-28 overtime win not only propelled the team to its first (and only) Super Bowl but clearly primed the pump for the follow-up game nine months later.
While Mahomes was lighting up the scoreboard at Arrowhead, LeBron James and the Lakers were putting the finishing touches on taking a 3-1 lead over the Rockets in the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals, Serena Williams was bowing out to Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open semis and the Golden Knights were playing overtime hockey against the Stars in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble. By contrast, other than Williams’s straight-sets victory in last year’s semis, the biggest threat to the 2019 NFL Kickoff was an episode of The Jersey Shore: Family Vacation.
If Thursday’s TV turnout may not have matched early expectations—NBC’s ratings guarantees were sufficiently high to justify what the network characterized as an average unit cost of nearly $900,000 per 30-second spot—it’s probably too early to draw any sweeping conclusions as to how the NFL’s ratings picture will shake out over the course of the season. While there will be any number of people who’ll insist that the nation’s political divisions will lead to depressed TV deliveries, that narrative was largely debunked the last time the NFL numbers took a tumble.
Which, of course, isn’t to altogether dismiss the greater world beyond sports as a contributor to this season’s TV turnout. When players like Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt linked arms in a pre-game show of solidarity with those fighting for racial justice, a steady stream of boos could be heard from the stands. Moments before the human chain was forged, the visiting Texans elected to remain in the locker room during the performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the National Anthem.
Once the game got underway, the ad barrage kicked into high gear. According to iSpot.tv estimates, the night’s biggest spenders included title sponsor Hyundai and halftime show backer Toyota, as well as Google, Verizon, Chevrolet, DraftKings, Volkswagen and McDonald’s. On the politics front, the Biden for President campaign invested in a 60-second spot that aired in the first half, while the Trump camp sat this one out.
As was first reported by Sportico, the NBC Sports ad sales team sold out the Texans-Chiefs opener a week in advance of Thursday’s broadcast.
After two years of declines, NFL ratings rebounded in 2018 and 2019. Per Nielsen, last season’s games averaged 16.4 million viewers and a 9.4 household rating, which marked a 5% lift versus the previous season’s tally (15.6 million/9.0). NBC’s Sunday Night Football package averaged 20 million viewers and an 11.3 rating, up 4% compared to its 2018 numbers, while the national Sunday afternoon TV window shared by CBS and Fox grew 8% and 6%, respectively, to 24.3 million viewers and a 13.4 rating.
Of the top 50 programs that aired in 2019, 41 were NFL broadcasts. The league also accounted for 73 of the year’s 100 most-watched shows.
A number of upcoming NFL matchups should tell us if Thursday night’s game is a bellwether for the season at large. On Sunday night, NBC will carry the Cowboys-Rams showdown, a game that features the highest-rated franchise and one from the country’s second-largest media market. Earlier that same day, Fox kicks off its national coverage with a rare (and possibly the last) meeting between Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Any significant drop in the overall TV deliveries for either game may be cause for alarm; last season, Dallas in its 12 national appearances averaged a staggering 23.4 million viewers/12.9 rating, while Brady’s former squad, the New England Patriots, ranked second (20.5 million/11.8).