The opening weekend for the 2019 NFL season mostly continued its ratings momentum from last year, with every network besides CBS seeing an improvement for its opening weekend of game coverage, according to Nielsen.
Overall, Week 1 averaged 17 million viewers, a 5% increase from the opening weekend in 2018.
ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” doubleheader saw gains for both the early and late windows, especially with the New Orleans Saints’ thrilling last-second comeback victory over the Houston Texans. That game, which the Saints won 30-28 on a field goal as time expired, drew 13.1 million, up 27% from last year’s early game. The late game between the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos, which the Raiders won 24-16, was up 10% from last year’s late-game (which also featured the Raiders) with 10.6 million viewers.
CBS was the only network during the opening weekend to see a decline from last year, though a pair of one-sided contests could be the reason. CBS’ regional coverage was down 10% from 2018 to 15.4 million viewers. More than half the country (57%) was treated to either the Kansas City Chiefs’ 40-26 blowout over the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Cleveland Browns laying an egg in their first home game against the Tennessee Titans, who knocked Baker Mayfield and co. around 43-13.
Fox saw a three-year high for its Week 1 “America’s Game of the Week” broadcast — a 35-17 victory by the Dallas Cowboys over the New York Giants — drawing 23.9 million viewers, up 2.5% from last year and its best performance for an opening weekend since 2016 (some markets saw San Francisco 49ers-Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Detroit Lions-Arizona Cardinals). Fox’s early window which featured regional coverage drew 12.6 million, up slightly over last year and also its best in that time window since 2016.
NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” opener was virtually even with last year (22.1 million), with 22.2 million for the New England Patriots’ 33-3 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last week, it saw its Green Bay Packers’ 10-3 win over the Chicago Bears to kick off the season improve by 13% to 22 million from 2018 (19.5 million).
The strong ratings come during an important time for the NFL, which is celebrating its 100th season. The league is coming off a year in which in stopped a two-year ratings slide as it seeks to remain immune to shifting viewer habits away from linear television. The NFL’s TV rights deals with NBC, Fox and CBS expire in 2022, with its deal with ESPN ending in 2021. Those are highly lucrative deals, with ESPN paying about $1.9 billion each year, with NBC, Fox and CBS paying out around $3 billion.
That doesn’t even include Fox’s separate deal for “Thursday Night Football” which is heading into its second year of a five-year deal.
Last year, NFL games were up 5% compared to 2017. All of the league’s TV partners saw individual viewership increases, which included Fox’s inaugural “Thursday Night Football” season producing the most-watched game in the short history of the franchise, and “Monday Night Football” garnering its most-watched game in two years. That momentum continued throughout the playoffs, before ending with a thud with a low-scoring Super Bowl LIII where the Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams 13-3.