Why NFL Week One Ratings Were Down


NFL ratings for week 1 were down between 10%-15% vs. last year for most games. Bear in mind, the NFL is still drawing massive numbers. For instance, the NBC Sunday Night Football broadcast was down 15% year over year, but it still drew nearly 19 million viewers and easily won the night as the most watched program. That said, this drop in viewership came as a surprise to many as there has been much speculation surrounding the return of sports, and the NFL in particular. As with most things there are a lot of different variables at play, but here are 9 things likely contributing the decrease in ratings. Some of which will improve as we move later into the season, while others will likely continue to be a factor for the rest of the season:

  1. Sports Overload: Right now we have the largest selection of prime sports to watch on TV in history. There are games for NFL, NCAA football, NBA Playoffs, NHL Playoffs, MLB, WNBA, Soccer, NASCAR, Tennis, Golf, and more. As any sports fan will tell you, it is exciting, but it’s also becoming exhausting to try and keep up with more than a handful of these sports at a time.
  1. Competition for eyeballs: On Thursday 9/10 sports fans had to choose between watching the US Open Semi-Finals with Serena competing to smash new records, watching the Lakers try to wrap up the series with the Rockets, or watching the first night of NFL with the defending Super Bowl Champions Chiefs playing the Texans. Those options are great news for sports fans, but tough for ratings on any of these programs.
  1. No Pre-Season:  Pre-season NFL Football had traditionally been four weeks long and although it certainly isn’t usually the best football of the year, it helped serve as an advertisement that football season is back. This year there were no pre-season games and the NFL return likely caught some casual sports fans by surprise in week 1.
  1. COVID restrictions easing:  In many parts of the country restrictions are beginning to ease and people are now able to travel more freely, and enjoy various forms of entertainment that had been cut off for the past few months. That combined with the warm weather of early September has likely led to more people enjoying the outdoors in their last weeks of warm weather before Fall begins to take hold.
  1. Community NFL viewing environments are depressed: Although many restrictions in certain states are easing, there are still two areas that are likely to be avoided: busy sports bars, and community watch parties. Both are prime environments for NFL viewing and will likely impact viewership for NFL games this season.
  1. Politicalizing NFL: Political views aside, there are clearly many sports fans that are not approving of the way both the NBA and the NFL have been adding stronger support to social justice messages. Given how hot of a topic this has been, it is certain to alienate some viewers.
  1. Cable Subscription loss: The recent market downturn has only accelerated the loss of traditional cable tv subscriptions in the US which is currently around 65% (not including Skinny bundles). This primarily impacts NFL network and ESPN games.
  1. Bigger Problems: Certain areas of the country are being impacted by unusual events including the wildfires that are affecting California, Oregon, and Washington; the hurricanes impacting the gulf coast; and the protests in Portland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago.
  1. Viewing environment with no fans:  The sports experience is just not the same without fans in the seats. There are a handful of teams that have fans in stadium with limited capacity, but the energy of the game is not the same for many fans watching at home. As with many of these, sports has now turned into yet another reminder of the current events of 2020 and the impact on our lives vs. an escape to some entertainment which is a large reason people watch sports to begin with.