It's Not Time to Panic Over NFL Ratings Just Yet

Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce | Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The NFL returned Thursday night as the Kansas City Chiefs took down the Houston Texans, 34-20 in the season's opening game. With the return of football comes the discourse you and I both love to engage in: ratings debates! That particular discussion promises to be even more heated this season as the "stick to sports" crowd gets worked up about the various demonstrations promoting social justice the NFL and its players have promised to put on over the course of the season.

It has already begun. The numbers are in from the opener, and average viewership was down about 10 percent from the 2019 season.

While it is not in our nature as human beings (apparently) I will still cry into the void: there is no need to overreact to this drop, for a number of reasons.

This won't stop anybody, including me, from talking about it, but it will be impossible to get a bigger-picture look at how the pandemic is impacting football ratings until we have a few weeks' worth of ratings. We should at least wait until we get Week 1's ratings in full to make any sort of declaration about which direction this is going. And, as Kaplan notes, an average of 20 million viewers is still a fantastic number.

It would also be worth mentioning that Thursday evening was a sports bonanza the likes of which we've never enjoyed. There was an NBA playoff game, and not just a regular ol' playoff game, but a game in which the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James played. MLB, the NHL, MLS, and WNBA all had games, too. The Lakers-Rockets game was the biggest potential siphon for viewers, but the sheer quantity of sports available meant not everyone was going to watch the first game of the NFL season.

As previously mentioned, it is difficult, if not downright impossible, to quantify the effect of the global pandemic on viewing habits right now. We may never be able to quantify that even years down the road, and certainly not right now. But using logic and reason, the pandemic prevented the usual gigantic ramp-up to regular-season football. In normal times, Chiefs-Texans would have been the first non-MLB game played since June. Every sports talk show in the country would have been breaking down and analyzing various NFL teams. There would have been preseason games and double the number of practices.

Instead of spending all of our time from June on daydreaming about the day football returned, the general public spent months agonizing over whether there would be a season at all until around mid-July. I would not blame you, reader, if you felt like the NFL season snuck up on you. Because it did, in a way. We aren't used to launching right into this while the NBA and NHL playoffs are on.

Then there's the fact that this is an election year, which historically works against sports ratings. Let us travel back only four short years to the 2016 opener between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, a rematch of Super Bowl 50. That game, coming two months from the 2016 presidential election, averaged 25 million viewers. Which is a drop of about two percent from the 2015 opener between Pittsburgh and New England, which set a record with an average of 27 million viewers.

The Denver-Carolina matchup in 2016 was admittedly set up to post lower numbers, given the market sizes of the two teams involved (especially compared to the previous year) and the fact that Peyton Manning retired during the 2016 offseason, leaving Brock Osweiler as Denver's quarterback. Nonetheless, the fact that the drop was pretty much the same is worth taking into consideration when trying to piece together this puzzle.

The NFL surely isn't happy the game dropped by that amount year-over-year. But an average of 20 million viewers is still 13 million more than the most-viewed NBA playoff game of the restart, which was Lakers-Rockets earlier this week coming in at an average of seven million viewers. So, in the immortal words of one Aaron Rodgers: R E L A X.