NFL ratings: Initial results show decline for K.C.-Houston kickoff game

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The initial wave of NFL ratings for Thursday night’s season kickoff have arrived, and the preliminary numbers are down for the NFL. However, the event was the most-watched sporting event since the Super Bowl, and only the second show since the Super Bowl to exceed 20 million viewers. (The Academy Awards in February averaged 23.9 million.)

According to Deadline, the Kansas City-Houston game initially rated a 5.2 among adults 18-49, the key demographic for advertisers, and boasted a preliminary total of 16.4 million viewers. At the moment — ratings are adjusted upward as more reports roll in — that’s a 16.1 percent drop from last year’s kickoff between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

As more numbers came in Friday afternoon, NBC reported a total audience of 20.3 million viewers, down from last year’s 22 million in the same timeslot. Overall, the game averaged a nationwide rating of 11.2/23, down from last year’s 12.8/26.

Critics of the league will point to the NFL’s newfound social justice activism as the reason for the decline. While that may be true, ratings are an inexact science, capable of detecting action but not motivation. Possible reasons for the initial decline include:

J.J. Watt and Patrick Mahomes. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
J.J. Watt and Patrick Mahomes. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Social justice activism: The NFL has stepped squarely into the social justice space, with messaging blanketing most of the opening minutes of the telecast and halftime show. Slogans are in place in the back of both end zones, players linked hands in a “show of unity” (that was booed by fans despite not taking place in connection with the national anthem), and commentators made multiple references to social justice efforts. Critics of the league have claimed that they will stop watching as long as “politics” intrude on sports.

Sports fatigue: Ratings for all sports, not just politically active ones, are down across the board. The twin societal hurricanes of a pandemic and racial protests have forced sports into a secondary role. Ongoing wildfires on the West Coast are a far more pressing concern to millions than whether Patrick Mahomes has a good day passing. It’s tough to relax with football when the world is crushing down on you.

No preseason: The typical cycle of preseason hype was absent this year; this was the first on-field pro football we’ve seen since the Super Bowl. While nobody really likes preseason games, per se, they serve an important purpose: priming the pump of fan interest. It’s a fair bet that many casual fans weren’t even aware the NFL was kicking off Thursday night.

Competition: While the NFL easily owned the night, it was nonetheless facing unexpected and unseasonal competition. Thursday night’s game went up against a LeBron James Lakers playoff game, a Serena Williams U.S. Open semifinal match, and a Dallas-Las Vegas Stanley Cup conference final. It’s a crowded sports calendar, and that means the audience’s attention gets spread thinner.

Few outside-the-home options: Ratings as of this season will begin including outside-the-home viewing. But with most bars and restaurants still closed, the opportunities for watching outside the home are slim.

The matchup: Multiple television ratings experts contacted by Yahoo Sports noted that the most important factor controlling NFL ratings isn’t politics or competition, it’s matchups. A good matchup between marquee teams will carry the day, and from that standpoint, Thursday night wasn’t a powerhouse showdown. The Chiefs are now one of the league’s top draws, but the Texans have struggled to draw attention on the national stage. They struggled on the field, too, falling behind 31-7 before losing 34-20.

Last year’s Packers-Bears game was a far more attractive national matchup, and was more of a competitive game, with the Packers winning 10-3. That game amassed a total viewership of 22 million.

Worth noting: advertisers still believe in the NFL and in the audience that’s watching. Pro Football Talk reported Thursday that NBC sold out its ad inventory for Thursday night’s game, “with revenue up double digits vs. 2019 and the average cost per 30-second spot near $900,000,” according to an NBC spokesperson.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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