The NFL and its media partners got an encouraging sign from the ratings for NBC's Thursday telecast of the 2021 season's kickoff.
Nielsen data showed that an average of 24.4 million viewers tuned in for the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys. The surprisingly close contest was decided by a field goal in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.
Another 1.6 million viewers streamed the telecast on various platforms, bringing the total average audience to 26 million, according to NBC.
The figure is 20% above last year's 21.6 million for the opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans. The total will be the highest for an NFL opener since 2015, when 27.4 million viewers watched the New England Patriots face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The number is likely generating a sigh of relief at NFL headquarters and the executive suites of the media companies that carry its games. A full slate of games, including the Chargers' opener against Washington on CBS and the Rams' matchup with the Chicago Bears on NBC's "Sunday Night Football," begins Sunday.
Nearly every big television event has seen a significant audience decline in the past year as the pandemic accelerated the trend away from traditional TV viewing to streaming video online.
The latest example is NBC's prime-time coverage of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which was down a staggering 42% from 2016, in part because viewers had so many online options to watch the competition live.
NFL games have been more resilient than other programming. In election years, the competition from presidential campaign coverage usually cuts into NFL viewership, and in 2020 the average audience for all games declined by 7% to 15.6 million.
But the strength of the NFL is best reflected in its performance compared with other network prime-time programming. In 2020, the NFL audience was 4.3 times larger than the average prime-time program, up from 3.1 times from 2016 to 2019.
Advertising on NFL telecasts is highly desired as they still have the ability to draw massive live audiences that will sit through commercials.
"They are the biggest driver of network ratings and ultimately advertising dollars," said media analyst Michael Nathanson in a report on the NFL issued Friday.
Several network sports executives have said the demand for ad time for the current season has been robust. NBC said it has pulled in a record $6.5 million for a 30-second spot on Super Bowl LVI, an 18% increase over the price for Super Bowl LV on CBS.
The NFL's new contract for media rights finalized in March saw a 100% increase to nearly $9 billion a year. The deal takes effect on ESPN and Amazon Prime in 2022 and kicks in for CBS, NBC and Fox in 2023.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.