NFL games had more than the usual competition from other sports and news on TV in its opening week, but that doesn’t entirely explain significant ratings drops.
The three marquee events of the opening week — Thursday Kickoff (down by 2.8m TV viewers), “Sunday Night Football” (-3.3m) and “Monday Night Football” (-2.3m) — all saw audience slippage, though even in decline they’re still among TV’s biggest attractions.
Not all games were down. Fox’s airing of Tom Brady’s debut as the Buccaneers quarterback was the highest-rated Week 1 game on Fox since 2016, with 25.8m viewers, and was the most-viewed game of the week. But this is likely an anomaly driven by the curiosity of seeing the league’s biggest star play on a different team for the first time.
The decline can’t be attributed to viewers switching to digital means in order to watch. Both games with digital audience data available reported modest total increases: The Kickoff game’s digital audience increased by 373,000 versus 2019, and “Sunday Night Football” saw 37,000 more viewers than last year.
So what else can explain these declines?
1. One way of understanding this year’s decline is putting it in context of the overall trend in year-on-year total views for the NFL’s three TV fixtures, where there has been a sustained decline in audience. The trend reversed in 2019, but contextually it could be this was a blip and 2020 represents a return to the norm.
2. VIP partnered with insights firm Hub Entertainment Research for a survey that found almost a quarter of NFL fans said the lack of an atmosphere would have them watching fewer or no games at all. The majority may be sticking around, but that’s a significant minority looking to bail.
3. A majority of Americans think sport is not the arena for protests, per research firm Maru, and this could be driving some fans to sit out games in counter-protest. Witness the boos from the small crowd allowed into the Kansas City Chiefs’ stadium last Thursday as players showed their support for racial equality.
4. Cord cutting is likely getting worse. While Q2 may not have seen as much of an impact as anticipated due to the CARES Act stimulus for out-of-work Americans being in full effect, Q3 is different.
Americans unemployed due to the pandemic have found little to no help from the government, which means that non-essential spending will be curtailed. For many, TV will be one of the luxuries sacrificed to keep food on the table, and this will play a role in shrinking audiences.
Regardless of the reasons, the fall in viewers will frighten networks relying on the NFL to provide some positive financials in a year where everything that could possibly go wrong has.
Contextually, the NFL still delivers the strongest audiences across TV. But amid a miserable 2020, coming below 2019’s opening levels will be giving execs at NBC, CBS, FOX and ESPN cause for concern.