The NFL season kicked off on Thursday with a stunning Chiefs win over the Patriots. But the TV audience for the 42-27 season opener was 12 percent smaller than last year’s, according to Deadline’s Dominic Patten.
The Patriots were heavily favored, and it was an entertaining upset. The game also aired on NBC, so it was more broadly available than Thursday night games that are only televised on NFL Network. But that didn’t improve ratings.
Last year’s season opener was a thriller, with the Broncos pulling off a close one, 21-20, over the Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl 50 matchup. And the season openers for the 2015 and 2014 seasons both brought in larger audiences, too.
But while declining TV ratings for the NFL have been a topic of conversation for some time, the reasons aren’t entirely clear. Data from the latest J.D. Power Fan Experience Survey suggests people are tuning out because of the league’s handling of players who commit domestic violence, national anthem protests, game delays for penalties and reviews, and too many commercials.
Many viewers are canceling cable and satellite subscriptions, which changes the way these cord cutters watch games. Whether they stream games online legally — or illegally — or just follow the action on Twitter or their phones, the way viewers follow the NFL is constantly changing. There aren’t numbers readily available to track that.
The 2016 election cycle was a particularly contentious one, and constant coverage of it also pulled viewers away from NFL games. But the people who said they were watching fewer games for any of these reasons represented 3 percent or less of the total number of respondents for that survey.
Perhaps the biggest competition Chiefs-Patriots had on television Thursday was coverage of Hurricane Irma. Irma is expected to make landfall on the Florida coast as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of over 150 miles per hour. As Houston and the rest of the region impacted by Hurricane Harvey begin the recovery process, many viewers prioritized news about Irma over football, and understandably so.
This was the smallest audience for an NFL season opener since 2009, according to Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp. Ratings will continue to be a concern for the NFL, and the league will keep trying to find ways to make the game more watchable.