This is a developing story.
The initial wave of NFL ratings for Thursday night’s season kickoff have arrived, and the preliminary numbers are sharply down for the NFL.
According to Deadline, the Kansas City-Texas game rated a 5.2 among adults 18-49, the key demographic for advertisers, and boasted a preliminary total of 16.4 million viewers. At the moment — ratings are adjusted upward as more reports roll in — that’s a 16.1 percent drop from last year’s kickoff between the Packers and the Bears.
Critics of the league will point to the NFL’s newfound political activism as the reason for the decline. While that may well be true, ratings are an inexact science, capable of detecting action but not motivation. Possible reasons for the initial decline include:
Social justice activism: The NFL has stepped squarely into the social justice space, with political messaging blanketing most of the opening minutes of the telecast and the halftime show. Slogans are in place in the back of both end zones, players linked hands in a “show of unity” (that was booed by fans despite not taking place in connection with the national anthem), and commentators made multiple references to social justice efforts. Critics of the league have claimed that they will stop watching as long as politics intrudes on sports.
Sports fatigue: Ratings for all sports, not just politically active ones, are down across the board. The twin societal hurricanes of a pandemic and racial protests have forced sports into a secondary role. Ongoing fires on the West Coast are a far more pressing concern to millions than whether Patrick Mahomes has a good day passing. It’s tough to relax with football when the world is crushing down on you.
No preseason: The typical cycle of preseason hype was completely absent this year; this was literally the first on-field football we’ve seen since the Super Bowl. While nobody really likes preseason games, per se, they serve an important purpose: priming the pump of fan interest. It’s a fair bet that many casual fans weren’t even aware the NFL was kicking off Thursday night.
Competition: While the NFL easily owned the night, it was nonetheless facing unexpected and unseasonal competition. Thursday night’s game went up against a LeBron James Lakers playoff game, a Serena Williams U.S. Open semifinal match, and a Dallas-Las Vegas Stanley Cup conference final. It’s a crowded sports calendar, and that means the audience’s attention gets spread a bit thinner.
The matchup: Multiple television ratings experts contacted by Yahoo Sports noted that the most important factor controlling NFL ratings isn’t politics or competition, it’s matchups. A good matchup between marquee teams will carry the day, and from that standpoint, Thursday night wasn’t a powerhouse showdown. The Chiefs are now one of the league’s top draws, but the Texans have struggled to draw attention on the national stage. They struggled on the field, too, falling behind 31-7 before losing 34-20.
Last year’s Packers-Bears game was a far more attractive national matchup, and was more of a competitive game, with the Packers winning 10-3. That game amassed a total viewership of 22 million.
Worth noting: advertisers still believe in the NFL and in the audience that’s watching. Pro Football Talk reported Thursday that NBC sold out its entire ad inventory for Thursday night’s game, “with revenue up double digits vs. 2019 and the average cost per 30-second spot near $900,000,” according to an NBC spokesperson.