The NFL is celebrating its 100th season this year. Based on the league’s strong Week 1 TV/digital numbers, it’s still the NFL – and then everything else in sports and entertainment.
The league says a total audience of over 109 million viewers tuned in for Week 1 action. Across the board, Week 1 games averaged over 17 million viewers, up 5% from the first week of the 2018 season. Overall, NFL games ranked as the top six telecasts for the broadcast week.
The numbers looked even better on digital platforms. Viewing over digital platforms delivered an average minute audience of 514,000, a 43% increase from Week 1 last year.
If you combine TV viewers with the digital audience, Week 1’s Top three games all averaged over 22 million viewers. Not coincidentally, they all featured teams with national TV followings:
– Dallas Cowboys vs New York Giants: The ‘Boys are still America’s Team. Despite the lopsided 35-17 score, the Cowboys’ victory averaged 24.2 million viewers. Credit the combination of the Cowboys’ national appeal with the nation’s biggest TV market in New York. It was Fox’s most-watched Week 1 national game of the week since 2016. You want to know why TV networks fight over Cowboys games? This was Exhibit A.
– New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Super Bowl champions blew out their AFC rivals 33-3. The only drama was how long Bill Belichick would play his starters. Didn’t matter. It was NBC’s first Sunday Night Football telecast of the year. Sunday Night Football has ruled as the top prime-time show a record eight years in a row. NBC averaged 22.9 million viewers.
– Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears: A sloppy, dull game, resulting in a 10-3 Packers victory. Didn’t matter. This was Opening Night for a country thirsting for real football. NBC averaged 22.7 million viewers, up 17% from the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Atlanta Falcons Opening Night game in 2018.
– New Orleans Saints vs. Houston Texans/Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos: The venerable Monday Night Football is celebrating its 50th season this year. ESPN got off to a great start, with its Opening Week doubleheader drawing a combined a 8.6 overnight rating, up 19% over last year. Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, said the Saints’ 30-28 come-from-behind win over the Texans featured the “most thrilling finish of the kickoff weekend.” This Monday’s game will feature the New York Jets vs. Cleveland Browns: the same two teams that played the first Monday Night Football game on Sep. 21, 1970.
On the social media front, the league says there were over 38 million social interactions around NFL games. And 250 million views of NFL videos across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, up 33% year-over-year.
Week 1 merchandise sales were strong too at NFLShop.com and Fanatic’s e-commerce sites. Sales rose 30% between September 5 and September 9 compared to the same period last year. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady boasted the best-selling player jersey.
The NFL pointed to several key factors for the strong numbers. There were 90 total touchdowns scored in Week 1, the most in NFL history. Nine games were decided by 8 points or less while 10 games remained within one score during the fourth quarter.
There were thrilling comebacks. The Philadelphia Eagles overcame a 17-0 deficit to beat the Washington Redskins while the Bills came back from 16-0 to top the Jets.
The NFL and its TV partners won’t address the gambling elephant in the room. But TV insiders say the legalization of sports betting in 13 U.S. states and counting also goosed the NFL’s Week 1 TV numbers.