TV audience for Thursday’s NFL opener on NBC was down 13% from 2019

Kansas City Chiefs' Clyde Edwards-Helaire tries to elude Houston Texans' Eric Murray in Thursday's game in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (25) carries the ball against Houston Texans safety Eric Murray (23) in the first half of Thursday night’s NFL season-opening game in Kansas City, Mo.
(Associated Press)

A lopsided win by the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and competition from other sports resulted in an audience drop for the NFL’s season opener Thursday on NBC.

The game averaged 19.3 million TV viewers, according to Nielsen data, a decline of nearly 13% compared with last year when 22.1 million viewers watched the Green Bay Packers open the season against the Minnesota Vikings.

NBC said an additional 977,000 million viewers were watching on streaming platforms, which bumped the total audience up to 20.3 million.


The TV audience is also expected be higher when out-of-home viewing is factored in. Nielsen is including those figures in its TV viewing data for the first time this season. NBC’s telecast of the Kentucky Derby saw a 12% lift when out-of-home viewing was added.

The NFL has an unusual amount of competition for sports viewers’ attention this season, as the league is up against the NBA playoffs and the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Both leagues had their seasons shut down for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed action in late July, and both played games Thursday night, further dividing the viewing audience.

In addition, Major League Baseball, with its shortened season, is already in pennant race mode and has been drawing larger audiences than last season.

As sports leagues juggle new schedules, TV networks will confront the challenge of how to broadcast so many live events at the same time.

June 3, 2020

Nevertheless, the audience drop on Thursday is likely to create some anxiety for the networks that carry the NFL. With the production of fresh entertainment programming still stalled due to the pandemic, outlets will be relying on football to deliver large audiences and reverse the decline in advertising revenues they have experienced since March, when the economic shutdown related to the nation’s health crisis cut into ad spending.

TV advertising sales for the NFL season were robust, even though the spread of COVID-19 created some uncertainty as to whether games would be played. NBC, which carries “Sunday Night Football,” sold out its Thursday opener at ad prices topping $800,000 for a 30-second spot. The game included a 60-second political ad for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

NBC opened with what is arguably the NFL’s top attraction in Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is coming off of his Super Bowl win in February.

But the game was not competitive as the Chiefs led the Houston Texans by 24 points early in the fourth quarter — nearly triple the point spread — which led to viewer tune-out. It was the largest fourth-quarter lead for a season opener in seven years. The Chiefs won by a score of 34-20.


The picture for the NFL’s TV performance will become clearer after the first weekend of games, which includes Fox’s late Sunday afternoon national broadcast of Tom Brady’s first game as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the New Orleans Saints, led by Drew Brees.

The Chiefs-Texans game did open with a brief moment of protest against racism. One Chiefs player raised a fist while another took a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Members of both teams formed a line and linked arms before the coin toss.

The NFL, as well as the rest of the professional sports world, has become more sympathetic to the Black Lives Matters movement since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

The NFL saw its ratings grow over the last two seasons following two straight years of declines in 2016 and 2017.