Just hours before the NFL kicked off its first Sunday of game-day action in 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm, plunging millions of Sunshine State residents into darkness and sending millions more scrambling to the Weather Channel and CNN.
While the league hoped a strong Week 1 schedule would help wash away the overarching narrative of last season, when ratings dropped 8 percent, Irma had other ideas. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings, all local and national TV windows (i.e., the 1 p.m. ET broadcasts on CBS and Fox, the Fox late-national game and NBC's "Sunday Night Football") were down 13 percent in total viewers compared to the year-ago results.
One of the two high-profile Sunday games managed to reverse the curse, however, as NBC's prime-time Giants-Cowboys broadcast averaged 24.4 million viewers, marking a 6 percent increase compared to last year's analogous Pats-Cardinals game, which drew 23.1 million viewers. Dallas's 19-3 rout of the G-Men averaged a 13.4 household rating, up 2 percent versus last year's 13.1 rating.
NBC's first "Sunday Night Football" production of the new season also delivered more advertiser-coveted viewers, drawing 11.7 million adults 18-49, an improvement of 8 percent versus the year-ago 10.8 million members of the demo.
As much as the 4:20 p.m. ET NFL windows tend to out-rate the prime-time games, Fox's first coast-to-coast "America's Game of the Week" showcase, which in 89 percent of its markets featured a defensive slog between the Seahawks and Packers, was down compared to last season's table-setter. Green Bay's 17-9 home win averaged 22.8 million viewers and a 12.7 household rating, down 18 percent versus the comparably massive Giants-Cowboys game in 2016. In eking out a 20-19 win over Dallas in the decidedly unfriendly confines of AT&T Stadium last year, the Giants helped Fox deliver 27.5 million viewers and a 15.5 household rating.
It's worth noting that as Fox was airing the Seahawks-Packers game, the Weather Channel was churning out big numbers of its own. Between 4 p.m. EDT and 8 p.m. EDT, when Irma was making its way up Florida's gulf coast, the Weather Channel averaged 4.48 million viewers, or more than 25 times the 175,000 viewers it averaged in the year-ago period.
CNN also scared up a sizable audience on Sunday. While Seattle and Green Bay battled at Lambeau Field, the cable news net averaged 3.17 million viewers and a 1.0 in the target demo, which works out to 1.21 million adults 25-54. By way of comparison, CNN in that same window averaged just 709,250 total viewers the previous Sunday; add its deliveries to those of the Weather Channel and you may have a rough idea of where a big chunk of Fox's typical NFL audience may have washed up on Sunday afternoon.
If the hurricane obviously took some of the wind out of the NFL's sails last weekend—deliveries for the local 1 p.m. windows on CBS and Fox were off 23 percent—the games weren't exactly all that much fun to watch, either. The average margin of victory in Sunday's games was 14.7 points; last year's games on opening Sunday were decided by 5.5 points. When not abject blowouts (the Rams, for example, stomped the Colts 46-9), the games were stagnant, low-scoring affairs. The 24 teams that played on Sunday scored just 444 points, whereas last season's opening field of 26 squads racked up 595 points. (The postponed Bucs-Dolphins matchup accounts for the discrepancy between the number of games played.)
While automaker investments in NFL broadcasts were somewhat diminished during this year's upfront, the category as a whole remains pro football's most visible by far. Fox's "America's Game of the Week" window featured seven car manufacturers, including Ford, Hyundai, Chevrolet and Toyota, while NBC's prime-time broadcast was peppered with more than 10 minutes of spots from the likes of Kia, Toyota, Chevrolet and BMW. Liquor pioneer Crown Royal followed up its historic 30-second buy in the Thursday night NFL Kickoff Game with another half-minute buy in "Sunday Night Football."
Final ratings for ESPN's "Monday Night Football" doubleheader were not available at press time. Nielsen employees had evacuated the company's Tampa-based data-processing headquarters in advance of Irma's approach, and the process of catching up with the batch of delayed ratings continues apace.
The NFL's broadcast partners look to bounce back from Sunday's ratings results this weekend, as Fox kicks off the first of its six scheduled nationally-televised games featuring the Cowboys, while NBC has the Packers and Falcons on deck in a vengeance match-up. The last time these two NFC stalwarts met, the birds all but humiliated Aaron Rodgers and Co., knocking the stuffing out of them in the conference championship game by a 44-21 margin.