It should have been a marquee matchup, and it was certainly promoted as one, but this year’s opening game of the NFL regular season had 13 percent fewer viewers than the opening game last season. Last year, more than 22 million people tuned in to watch the Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers. This year, only about 19 million watched the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Houston Texans.
Now, nearly 20 million people may sound like a huge audience, and the NFL definitely positioned its following messaging that way, touting this turnout as “the most-watched sporting event since the Super Bowl…” But, while that’s an accurate statement, it’s also true that COVID-19 shut down most professional sports for part of the spring and all of the summer, so there wasn’t much competition for that particular top spot.
That leads to what could be the real viewership challenge for the NFL: serious, unprecedented levels of entertainment competition. On a recent night, the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and professional soccer all hosted games, and on top of those leagues, the US Open tennis tournament recently aired, and golf is getting back into full swing.
While some of these sports do overlap for short periods during the year, these kinds of simultaneous sports options are all but unprecedented. While many fans are happy to have the NFL back, some of those fans would much rather watch the NBA or NHL playoffs because the drama and theater of those matchups have a lot more weight to them than early-season NFL games.
That said, the games are being played, and, with few or no fans in the stadiums, NFL teams are depending on TV money to keep them in the black this season. Conventional wisdom predicted that more people at home would mean more eyes watching the games at home. That’s been the case for many TV programs, as well as streaming media throughout the pandemic.
That was not the case for the NFL opener, though, and it wasn’t because the game was not entertaining. Two hot young quarterbacks with high-octane offenses were dueling it out, showcasing what many are calling the future of the NFL. But, by NFL standards, numbers were down, and that needs to change quickly.
On the flip side, for networks airing NFL games, having football back is a huge boost to their bottom line. These games are by far the biggest weekly draw for the networks, so they have a huge incentive to work with the league to get eyes-on these programs.
So, despite the challenges in this incredibly unique year, live sports needs to find a way to bring back the audience, and that begins with strong, targeted sports and consumer PR, with winning back people who turned the NFL off and connecting with sports fans who are currently spoiled for sports entertainment options.