The Buccaneers vs. Cowboys game was the most-viewed NFL opener since 2015

Key Points
  • The 2021 NFL opener Thursday between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys averaged 26 million total viewers on all platforms, including NBC TV and Peacock.
  • That's up 20% from the 2020 kickoff game.
  • NBC's TV coverage peaked at 25.4 million viewers.

In this article

Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers passes against the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.
Mike Ehrmann | Getty Images

The National Football League started its 2021 season with an exciting contest featuring two top quarterbacks and a stadium of fans, which helped it lure the most viewers since 2015.

NBC said its 2021 NFL opener Thursday between the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys averaged 26 million total viewers on all platforms and peaked on NBC TV at 25.4 million viewers between 9:45 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET.

The game marked a 20% increase in total viewership from last year's NFL kickoff featuring the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans. That contest averaged 19.3 million viewers and was the first NFL game during the pandemic.

The 2020 NFL opener faced competition from the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and tennis' U.S. Open. Those leagues played at the same time due to the pandemic postponements, which impacted NFL viewership. By comparison, the 2019 opener featuring the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears averaged roughly 22 million viewers.

The Bucs beat the Cowboys, 31-29, behind Tom Brady's late fourth-quarter drive, leading to the game-winning field goal. Brady, 44, finished the game completing 32 of 50 passes and four touchdowns. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott also put on a show, throwing for 403 yards and three touchdowns.

NBC, which shares a parent company with CNBC, said the 2021 contest averaged 24.4 million viewers on TV and was the most-watched kickoff game since the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots opener in 2015. That game also featured Brady and attracted 27.4 million viewers.

Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws a pass during the regular season game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 09, 2021 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Cliff Welch | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

Top markets for the 2021 NFL opener included Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Tampa Bay, Florida, and Providence, Rhode Island.

According to advertising data firm EDO, the network brought in an estimated ad spend of more than $60 million for the 2021 NFL opener, up 16% from last year. EDO measures ads via search engine visibility, which quantifies ad engagement five to 10 minutes after an ad airs.

The firm told CNBC that crypto and financial services companies shared 8.8% of total search engagement for ads that appeared during the Bucs vs. Cowboys matchup, while companies in the gambling category shared only 1.7%. The average ad in last night's game generated 21% more engagement than last year's contest.

"Last night's opening game was great news for NFL advertisers, NFL broadcast partners, and the league," said EDO CEO Kevin Krim via email. "We saw strong year-over-year performance with top search scores significantly higher than last year's opener."

Disclosure: NBC and CNBC are divisions of NBCUniversal.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that viewership on NBC TV peaked at 25.4 million and that, according to EDO, crypto and financial services companies shared 8.8% of total search engagement for ads during the game and gambling companies shared 1.7%.

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