Initial ratings for the first game of the NFL 2020 regular season plunged amid the league’s social-justice push and greater competition from other professional sports.
The overnight Nielsen Media Research figures showed that the prime-time Thursday night match-up on NBC Sports dropped 16.1% in the key 18-49 demographic, attracting 16.4 million viewers in what could be a 10-year audience low, according to Deadline.
The 34-20 win by the Kansas City Chiefs over the Houston Texans was unusual in several respects: Thanks to the novel coronavirus, only 17,000 socially distanced fans were allowed at Arrowhead Stadium, and the season began without the traditional lead-up after the NFL canceled preseason games.
The game also gave viewers their first look at the NFL’s newly unveiled social-justice initiatives. Prior to the game, both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, were played, and “END RACISM” and “IT TAKES ALL OF US” were painted in the end zones.
Even so, the Texans remained in the locker room for both anthems. Players then locked arms at midfield for a “moment of unity” as a video screen displayed messages such as “WE BELIEVE BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “WE MUST END RACISM,” apparently prompting boos from the audience.
“This number is alarming,” said Outkick the Coverage’s Bobby Burack. “[Chiefs QB] Patrick Mahomes is the best show in sports, the Chiefs are a thrill ride. If that combination can’t get fans to ignore the exhausting nonsense, few games will.”
The NFL gave players the option of wearing decals with messages or names such as those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the backs of their helmets “to honor victims of systemic racism.”
While viewers may have been turned off by the politics, it’s also possible that sports fans were diverted by the NBA and NHL playoffs, both of which overlapped with the NFL season after being delayed by the COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as the U.S. Open women’s semifinal.
Pundits also noted that football’s inaugural Thursday night game, which Kansas City led 24-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, was less competitive than last year’s opener between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, which the Packers won 10-3, drawing 22 million viewers.
Fox Sports executive vice president Mike Mulvihill pointed out that ratings for Thursday’s four sports events — the NFL, NBA, NHL and U.S. Open — drew a 17.4 rating, higher than the 16.9 rating posted in 2019 for the NFL and U.S. Open.
“The impact of out-of-season competition will lessen as the NFL season goes on, and will generally be less on Sundays than it was for the opener,” he tweeted.
The NFL saw ratings tick up 5% in 2019, reversing a slide that began in 2016, the year that then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
That decline has also been blamed on cord-cutting as television-watchers cancel their multichannel cable subscriptions.