NFL TV Ratings Hold Up as Fans Revel in Weird, Wild Opening Week

·4 min read

A few new wrinkles to the NFL’s Week One schedule made an absolute hash of the practice of calculating year-over-year ratings comparisons, but for the most part, the overall TV deliveries suggest the league hasn’t missed a step.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the numbers were all over the map, as NBC’s multiyear high in the Thursday night NFL Kickoff game was diminished somewhat by a bit of a drop during the Sunday Night Football opener. Meanwhile, a rare collision of Sunday national windows became a war of attrition between CBS and Fox, the effects of which were exacerbated by what may be characterized as the Packers’ worst loss of the storied Aaron Rodgers era.

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Oh, and then ESPN and its sibling networks turned around and notched the biggest turnout for a Monday Night Football premiere since 2013.

First, a look at the week’s unqualified success stories, which include the Cowboys-Bucs showcase on Sept. 9, the massive Disney outing (Ravens-Raiders) on Monday night and CBS’ Browns-Chiefs nail-biter in the big Sunday afternoon window. Graced with a battle between two top AFC contenders, CBS was able to steal share from Fox, which was saddled with the Packers’ grim 38-3 knuckle-dusting at the hands of the Saints. The Browns defense kept Patrick Mahomes in check through the midway point of the third quarter, holding the Chiefs to just 10 points, whereupon the magician/quarterback pulled a few bunnies out of a few helmets, churning out 23 points in the last 23 minutes.

The Chiefs’ narrow 33-29 win was the week’s second-biggest draw, averaging 19.5 million viewers and a 10.0 household rating. If CBS hadn’t been burdened with the onus of the simultaneous NFC broadcast on Fox, it likely would have scared up something in the vicinity of 23 million to 24 million viewers. Naturally, both networks were aware that the overstuffed 4:20 p.m. ET window would make for some not-insignificant audience cannibalization—the NFL returns to its standard Sunday afternoon rotation this week, as CBS tees up a Cowboys-Chargers outing—but no one could have foreseen the waking nightmare that was Green Bay-New Orleans.

Fox’s coverage of the 35-point demolition derby averaged a network-low 16.2 million viewers, which represents a 37% drop-off versus the analogous Bucs-Saints opener in 2020. That considerably less lopsided game (New Orleans prevailed at home by a 34-23 margin) delivered 25.8 million viewers opposite a single CBS regional broadcast, setting a high-water mark for last season’s Sunday package.

Meanwhile, it is perhaps worth noting that the Packers-Saints blowout still managed to draw more viewers than 11 of NBC’s 17 nights of Olympics coverage. While Fox may be on the hook for more makegoods than usual, the 16.2 million average hardly qualifies as a catastrophic outcome. Again, we’ll have a more lucid picture of how everything’s humming along after next weekend, when the NFL’s TV schedule reverts to its factory settings.

If the bonus late game made for some knotty apples-to-Fiona Apples comps with last season, the overall Week One deliveries were still up a hair. Thanks in large part to the robust Thursday-Monday bookends, the uncharacteristically low Fox turnout didn’t have much of an impact on the overall TV turnout. Eliminate Packers-Saints from consideration, and the average across the regional and national windows was a heady 17.1 million viewers, which works out to a 2% lift from last season. Average out the Fox and CBS broadcasts and the total dips to 16.8 million, which is unchanged from the year-ago figure.

Disney’s Monday Night Football debut also thumbed its nose at sequential comps, as ESPN’s bonkers Ravens-Raiders game was simulcast on broadcast flagship ABC. With an average draw of 15.3 million viewers (800,000 of whom were locked into the ManningsCast on ESPN2), the steroidal MNF opener topped last season’s standard Steelers-Giants cable launch by 4.5 million viewers, good for a 42% year-over-year lift. For what it’s worth, the combined audience across the three TV outlets gave Disney its most-watched NFL kickoff game in eight years; the Eagles’ 33-27 squeaker over Washington on Sept. 9, 2013, averaged 16.5 million viewers on ESPN.

All told, 23.2 billion minutes of NFL action were consumed between Thursday night and Monday night, which made for the league’s biggest Week One total since 2016. If the unconventional schedule may have made it somewhat tougher to provide a reckoning of the league’s early TV deliveries, here’s a less ambiguous number to chew on: $105 billion. That, of course, is the value of the rights package the NFL hashed out with its media partners this spring. However you choose to count the house this week, that’s one figure that doesn’t need much in the way of explanation.

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