What's Behind the NFL's Loss in Viewership?
As excited as I was for the start of the 2020 NFL season, it doesn’t seem the rest of the country felt the same. Nearly across the board, viewership for the first week of games was among the lowest in years. The Thursday night opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans drew 19.3 million viewers, a 13% decrease from last year’s 22.2 million viewers. Even without the official numbers for Sunday Night Football, NBC expects a significant dip in the number of viewers despite the Dallas Cowboys' inclusion on national television.
I’ve read several explanations for the loss of viewership. The predominant theory has been that the NFL’s use of its platform as a voice in social justice reform has rubbed fans the wrong way. Fans displayed their feelings about the NFL when the Texans and Chiefs linked arms for a moment of unity, to which the attendants in Kansas City reciprocated with boos. I don’t think that fans of the NFL would be willing to cut the league out of their life over their social justice beliefs, especially since the presence of boos at the game means that even the most oppositional fans were still willing to pay money for tickets to the game. While the outspokenness of the NFL’s players and leaders may have cost the league some of its fans, I feel like there is another explanation.
The Thursday night game saw low viewership, but this was also the first day that fans had every professional sport at their disposal. Thursday night had MLB, NBA, and NHL games on top of the Chiefs-Texans matchup. At this time of the year, the NHL and NBA would have already concluded their season, meaning that more attention will be devoted to the NFL from casual fans. The hardcore fans will still be paying attention despite the other sports, as shown in the increase in viewership for Fox during the Saints-Buccaneers game on Sunday afternoon, but I believe the loss in viewership is a product of the abundance of options that casual fans have. The Saints and Buccaneers featured the matchup of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady and drew Fox’s highest-rated game since 2016. Brady's first game without a Patriots' jersey unsurprisingly defied the downward trend in viewership and attracted hardcore and casual fans alike.
I expect the viewership to return to relatively normal levels once the NHL and NBA’s playoffs conclude. I would not be surprised if the NFL does experience a slight decline in fans from their stances on social issues, but their decision to stand for what is right may actually bring back some fans who the NFL may have lost due to their previous inaction. Only time will tell what the future has in store for the NFL, but I am still just as excited as ever for the NFL season.