NFL Kickoff Game Hits a 6-Year Ratings High With 26 Million Viewers

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Given the franchises involved and the serotonin lift provided by a capacity crowd at Raymond James Stadium, Thursday’s night NFL Kickoff broadcast was always going to scare up an outsized TV audience. But thanks to Tom Brady’s 49th career come-from-behind drive and a last-second Ryan Succop field goal, NBC’s coverage of the Cowboys-Bucs showdown earned the network its highest opening-night deliveries since 2017.

Tampa’s 31-29 win over Dallas averaged 26 million viewers, making it the biggest NFL table-setter since the Steelers and Patriots served up 27.4 million viewers back in 2015. The broadcast drew a national TV and streaming audience that was 20% larger than last year’s Texans-Chiefs skirmish (21.6 million viewers) and easily topped the NFL centennial celebration in 2019, a Packers-Bears brawl that averaged 22.7 million viewers.

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Per Nielsen, NBC’s flagship broadcast accounted for 24.4 million viewers, while the remaining 1.6 million accessed the game via out-of-home venues and the NBC Sports/Peacock and NFL digital platforms. The game currently stands as the 12th most-watched broadcast of 2021, falling just shy of the overall deliveries for the Browns-Steelers Wild Card game on Jan. 10.

While Brady and the Bucs sauntered off with a hard-fought win, the league and its broadcast partners couldn’t have been more pleased with how Dallas looked in defeat. More specifically, Dak Prescott played a fantastic 60 minutes, connecting on 42 of his 58 tosses for 403 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in his first game back after an 11-month hiatus.

Though still not 100% recovered from the shoulder injury he’d sustained in training camp, Prescott on Thursday night notched a 101.4 passer rating, putting the rest of the league on notice while all but guaranteeing that Dallas will continue to serve as the NFL’s biggest televised attraction. The Cowboys are the only franchise that can cobble together a 6-10 record one season and be rewarded with no fewer than 11 national broadcast appearances the next. Then again, you can count on the fingers of no hands how many 0.375 teams can still manage to scare up 21.1 million viewers per game.

Both teams did everything within their power to put on a show for the home audience, and all the highlight-reel fodder went a long way toward ensuring that viewers remained riveted to NBC. The game now stands as the fourth highest-scoring Kickoff broadcast since NBC began airing Sunday Night Football in 2006, trailing only the 2013 Broncos-Ravens blowout (76 combined points), the equally overstated 2011 Packers-Saints air war (76) and the 69-point Chiefs-Patriots shocker in 2017.

And while offensive production is always a leading indicator of ratings success, there’s no better combination than a high-scoring contest decided in the closing seconds. Thursday’s game boasts the second-smallest margin of victory for any Kickoff effort, following on the heels of the Broncos’ 21-20 win over the Panthers in 2016.

As much as the Brady-Prescott duel served as one hell of an introduction to the 2021 NFL campaign, the action that took place during the ad breaks was perhaps just as noteworthy. If the bulk of the 75 paid in-game spots were snapped up by the usual suspects—halftime show sponsor Toyota, Hyundai, Progressive, Chevrolet, USAA, Bud Light and Samsung Mobile were among the broadcast’s top backers, per iSpot.tv estimates—Thursday’s opener provided a preview of how the newly approved gaming/casino category might perform over the course of the season.

NBC aired the league-mandated maximum number of gambling spots, splitting four 30-second units among DraftKings and FanDuel while carving out a half-minute each for Caesars Entertainment and BetMGM. In April, the NFL inked sportsbook partnerships with the first three brands, while BetMGM was among the second wave of operators that signed on with the league late last month.

Cotton Mather-types may have noticed that the broadcast was practically awash with promotions for vice, as the sportsbooks were joined by liquor purveyors Captain Morgan and Smirnoff. Having lifted its ban on spirits advertising four years ago, the NFL has allowed the hard stuff to enjoy a steady, if not to say intoxicating, in-game presence. (If you find yourself clutching your pearls over these recent developments, just wait until marijuana is fully legal in every NFL market. Twenty-six down, six to go.)

Theatrical movies also made a splash, as the long-dormant category accounted for 5.5 in-game units. Among the studios that aired teasers during the Cowboys-Bucs broadcast were Columbia Pictures (Venom: Let There Be Carnage), Warner Bros. (The Matrix Resurrections), Marvel (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and MGM, which dusted off a preview of the latest installment of the James Bond franchise, No Time to Die. Plagued by production delays and nearly derailed altogether by the coronavirus pandemic, No Time to Die had originally been scheduled to open in November 2019.

At an average unit cost of around $845,000 per spot, NBC grossed somewhere in the vicinity of $60 million in ad sales revenue Thursday night. And while that’s a nice chunk of change, that haul may very well be dwarfed by the Oct. 3 Bucs-Pats Sunday Night Football broadcast, which will feature Brady’s first visit to Foxborough since he signed a two-year, $50 million deal with Tampa in March 2020.

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