2020 NFL Opening Night Averages 20.3 Million Viewers

    • On broadcast TV, NBC averaged 19.3 million viewers for Texans-Chiefs, peaking at 22 million between 9:15 p.m. ET and 9:30 ET.
    • Viewership was down 10.6% from 22.7 million for last year’s Packers-Bears.

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The NFL experienced an audience drop for its opening night game between the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans compared to 2019.

NBC Sports’ telecast of the Chiefs’ 34-20 win over the Texans averaged a preliminary total audience delivery of 20.3 million viewers across NBC TV, NBC Sports Digital, and NFL digital platforms, according to fast national data from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics.

That’s down 10.6% from a comparable total audience delivery of 22.7 million for last year’s season opener between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. 

The 2019 opener — the 199th matchup between the teams to kick off the NFL’s 100th season — was up 16% compared to the previous season. This year’s numbers don’t include out-of-home viewing data, which will be included at a later date.

On broadcast TV, NBC averaged 19.3 million viewers for Texans-Chiefs, peaking at 22 million between 9:15 p.m. ET and 9:30 ET.

NBC noted the game was still the most-watched sporting event since the Chiefs’ win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. This year’s kickoff game was also the only telecast since the Super Bowl besides the Academy Awards to average more than 20 million viewers. Excluding Super Bowls, it was NBC’s most-streamed game ever. 

As the dominant U.S. sports league, the NFL’s average regular season game audiences have risen 5% the past two seasons. 

There’s plenty of factors that could have impacted the opener’s TV numbers.

It is likely that many will raise questions whether the league’s emphasis on social justice is turning off viewers. The fanfare around the NFL’s 100th season could have also contributed to the increased viewership for the 2019 opener.

During its “Football Night in America” pregame show, NBC analysts went deep on the social justice and racial justice concerns of NFL players.

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The Texans stayed in the locker room during the pregame playing of the U.S. national anthem and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem. The Chiefs primarily stood for both anthems. Some fans at Arrowhead Stadium booed as the two teams locked arms in a pregame “Moment of Unity” at mid-field. Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor took a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

During the 2016-2017 seasons, the NFL’s average viewership dropped 8% and 10% respectively as quarterback Colin Kaepernick inspired hundreds of players, coaches and even owners like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys to take a knee on the field in protest of police brutality.

However, several outliers also occurred around the game. The 24-point fourth-quarter deficit was the largest of any kickoff game for the past seven years. 

The NFL game was also facing several other live sports broadcasts, generally not the case in a typical year. Both the NBA and NHL had playoff games, while Serena Williams played a match at the U.S. Open and the MLB held games.

“Last night’s game faced unprecedented sports competition, as both NBA and NHL playoff games were contested at the same time,” NBC said in a statement.

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Despite the star power of young quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and DeShaun Watson of the Texans, the game itself was sloppy and one-sided. Many TV viewers may have simply gotten out of the habit of watching live sports during the months-long hiatus sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The league, TV partners, and sponsors should get a better grip on the NFL’s TV strength after the conclusion ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” double-header on Sept. 14.