NBC’s first “Sunday Night Football” game of the season had everything going for it from a TV perspective.
The nationally-televised primetime game featured the league’s biggest TV draw: the Dallas Cowboys.
Cowboys vs. Los Angeles Rams was the first game at the new $5 billion SoFi Stadium.
The Rams’ 20-17 win was called by the A-list broadcast crew of Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, and Michele Tafoya — and produced by the same elite team that’s turned “Sunday Night Football” into TV’s top primetime show a record nine straight years.
And yet “Sunday Night Football,” the league’s premier primetime package, suffered a double-digit audience drop for Week 1.
NBC’s Cowboys-Rams averaged a total audience delivery of 19.6 million viewers across NBC TV, NBC Sports Digital, and NFL digital platforms.
That’s down 14% from 22.8 million for the comparable Pittsburgh Steelers-New England Patriots game for the first “Sunday Night Football” game of the 2019 season. It came on top of a 5% audience drop for NBC’s season-opening telecast of the Kansas City Chiefs-Houston Texans game Thursday night.
Still, the NBC games ranked as two of the three most-watched shows in primetime the last seven months. NBC’s streaming audience is up 39% from last year’s record season.
The carnage was worse for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” cable TV doubleheader, featuring the Steelers-New York Giants and Denver Broncos-Tennessee Titans games.
Despite the popular college football announcing duo of Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler calling their first NFL game in 25 years, ESPN’s Steelers-Giants telecast averaged 10.8 million viewers, down 18% from last year’s comparable early game.
The later Broncos-Titans game fared even worse, with average viewership plunging 27% to 7.7 million viewers. That telecast also had the curiosity factor of introducing ESPN’s latest “Monday Night Football” booth team of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, and Brian Griese.
Still, Steelers-Giants was cable TV’s most-watched sporting event since January. The annual doubleheader helped ESPN win the night. The Disney-owned network was the most-watched network in primetime Monday night across broadcast and cable TV.
The primetime numbers were not good. But nobody is panicking at NFL headquarters or TV networks, according to Patrick Crakes, the former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant. It’s impossible to draw definitive conclusions after just one week. Particularly, since the COVID-19 pandemic makes apple-to-apple business comparisons difficult.
“I don’t think this means anything for ‘SNF’ or NFL strategically,” Crakes said. “In fact, I’d argue given how atypical this year is the overall performance was pretty good. The bottom line, we need a couple more weeks to even begin to try and draw some serious insights.”
The NFL’s total audience for its 2020 season opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans dropped 10.6% from last year’s kickoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
But the lackluster TV numbers for Week 1’s primetime games are raising questions.
The ratings could be a result of viewers changing their TV-watching habits after the months-long shutdown of live sports because of COVID-19 — or some fans might be rejecting the NFL’s embrace of social and racial justice activism this season.
And what does it mean for this week’s “Thursday Night Football” matchup on NFL Network between two 0-1 AFC North rivals: the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals?
Blame it on a combination of factors, say sports TV experts.
For one thing, Sunday night’s Cowboys-Rams was not the biggest game of the day or weekend, noted Douglas Pucci, an analyst with Programming Insider and Awful Announcing.
The real must-watch game of Week 1 was Tom Brady’s debut with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints.
Airing in Fox Sports’ coveted late Sunday afternoon window, that game delivered, averaging 25.8 million viewers, up 7% over last year’s comparable Week 1 telecast. Brady’s Bucs debut was the most-watched TV show since Super Bowl LIV in February.
“When I looked at Sunday’s schedule, that was the game I wanted to watch. If Sunday was an all-day supper, the main course was on Fox,” Pucci said.
Across the board, TV audiences are down as more consumers cut the cord and embrace streaming options, noted media consultant Brad Adgate.
With the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and more in action at the same time, there’s a “glut” of sports options on the TV dial.
“Viewers have other options. Also, network TV ratings have been way down so viewers may be turning to other options,” Adgate said. “Perhaps the NFL ratings are starting to be impacted by the audience fragmentation that entertainment shows have been confronting.”
With the presidential election less than two months away, viewers might also be drawn to cable news shows — similarly to in 2016. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is the most vulnerable to the migration of TV viewers to news from sports this election season, Crakes said.
“Mondays are a big day for those editorial news prime shows and that may be where we see the impact for next two months,” he said.
The good news, said Crakes, is the inclusion of “out-of-home” TV viewing in bars, restaurants, and other locations will help NFL TV ratings this year. During Week 1, he estimates out-of-home data added about 1.5 million viewers to each game window on an average minute basis.
The NFL and its TV partners are reluctant to blame players protesting for racial justice during the U.S. national anthem for audience drops. Especially since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has openly admitted the league was “wrong” for not listening earlier to players like Colin Kaepernick.
But there’s no doubt social justice was a major storyline in Week 1 during both pregame shows and live game telecasts. That can potentially turn off certain viewers who claim the NFL and its players should “stick to sports.”
Adgate is not willing to fully attribute the viewership drops to the league’s social justice initiatives. But the NFL’s newfound embrace of social justice, and the live coverage of player protests, could be impacting early ratings to some degree.
“Some people turn to sports to avoid politics — and maybe they feel they can’t even do that anymore,” Adgate said.