Despite NFL Dip, TV Sports Viewing Rises Thursday

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The NFL opened its 2020 season on Thursday night to fewer TV viewers than it did a year ago.

Nielsen ratings for NBC's broadcast currently show it down about 13 percent on TV — 19.3 million viewers, vs. 22.1 million in 2019 — and about 11 percent with streaming included (20.3 million vs. 22.75 million).

As for why the numbers dipped, pick a reason: a lopsided score (the Kansas City Chiefs were up 31-7 over the Houston Texans early in the fourth quarter and coasted to a 34-20 win); teams with smaller national followings than last year's kickoff participants, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers; some fans' distaste for the league's nod to social justice causes (there were boos in the stadium when the teams locked arms in a show of unity before the game).

But the most likely cause is this: Thursday featured a lot more sports options on TV than the night of the NFL opener a year ago, as the NBA and NHL continued their pandemic-delayed postseasons. Despite the dip in viewership for NBC's NFL broadcast, TV sports as a whole actually grew their audience over the NFL's opening night in 2019.

In fact, Thursday was the first day ever that the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL, Major League Soccer and WNBA all played on the same day.

To be sure, contests in the NBA, NHL and NASCAR and the U.S. Open tennis tournament weren't very much competition for the NFL. The four telecasts averaged about 5.08 million viewers combined, scarcely  more than a quarter of the NFL's on-air tally.  But that in turn was more than twice as many people watching non-NFL sports in primetime than were doing so a year ago, when only the U.S. Open drew a significant enough audience to make the top 150 shows on cable opposite football. (A WNBA game on ESPN2 and regional baseball coverage on MLB Network did not.)

As a result, about 24.38 million people watched sports on TV Thursday — a 2 percent gain over the 24 million who were doing the same on the NFL's opening night in 2019.

Like the NFL game, TNT's NBA broadcast featured a team from Houston, as the Rockets were facing the L.A. Lakers in game four of their second-round playoff series. The audience for the NBA game (2.5 million viewers), predictably, fell considerably from the two teams' last meeting on Tuesday (4.65 million), but it likely also took some viewers away from the Texans in their home market. The Texans-Chiefs game drew a 20.6 household rating in Houston, compared to a 25.9 for the team's season opener on Monday Night Football in 2019.

About 1.55 million people watched the U.S. Open women's semifinals on ESPN, down from 1.87 million last year. An NHL playoff game on NBC Sports Network (790,000 viewers) and a NASCAR Truck Series race on FS1 (237,000) together drew a little more than a million viewers.

Cable news also put up stiffer competition on Thursday than it did last year. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC averaged 2.64 million viewers in primetime, a 46 percent jump over the NFL's kickoff night in 2019.

The NHL and NBA will be finished with their seasons by mid-October at the latest, and Major League Baseball's expanded postseason likely won't be airing games directly opposite NFL contests more than a handful of times. The pandemic-altered sports calendar may steal some viewers from football in the early going, but in the back half of its season the NFL will have the landscape largely to itself.