What do surprisingly low ratings for first episode of 'Hard Knocks' say about this NFL season?

Frank Schwab
·3-min read

Record ratings for shows like the NFL draft, “The Last Dance” documentary on the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty and the PGA Championship seemed to indicate huge viewership numbers were coming for the NFL season.

That could still happen. But the ratings drop for the first episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” was an unexpected bad sign.

Austin Karp of Sports Business Journal said ratings for the first episode of this “Hard Knocks” season featuring the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams drew just 273,000 viewers on TV. Last season’s premiere had 705,000.

Karp wrote that it was the lowest rating for any “Hard Knocks” episode he could find. And that’s for the first episode of the season. It seems doubtful that the audience will grow substantially in future weeks.

Why was ‘Hard Knocks’ viewership so low?

There are factors in the ratings drop that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.

The Rams are a little bit of a draw but the Chargers are the most anonymous team in the NFL. Last year’s season with the Oakland Raiders was boosted by the Antonio Brown drama, and that was going to be a hard bar to clear.

Still, there are factors central to 2020 that clearly have an impact. With no training camp and preseason there has been less NFL news at this time of year. It doesn’t really seem like the season is just a few weeks away. For the first time, the NFL has to compete with the NBA and NHL for viewers in August. Also, it’s at least possible that with many people unemployed, HBO doesn’t have as many subscribers as a year ago.

Still, it’s a bit of a jolt for the league, which will either have limited fans in the stadium or none at all, and was presumably expecting monster TV ratings. That’s what happened with the draft. But it didn’t carry over to “Hard Knocks.”

Jared Goff and the Rams weren't a big draw on the first episode of "Hard Knocks." (AP Photo/Marcio José Sánchez)
Jared Goff and the Rams weren't a big draw on the first episode of "Hard Knocks." (AP Photo/Marcio José Sánchez)

What will interest be in NFL season?

Chris Towers at CBS Sports tweeted a Google trends graph that showed interest in fantasy football is way down from this time last year. That goes against the thought that everything about the NFL would be consumed at a much higher level in 2020, with most entertainment options unavailable due to restrictions. College football either being limited to a few conferences or being postponed altogether made that theory even stronger.

But two staples of the lead-up to the NFL season, fantasy football and “Hard Knocks,” have gone the other way. That may mean very little. Again, the Rams and Chargers don’t have a huge fanbase no matter how hard the NFL markets Los Angeles like they do, and there hasn’t been the normal NFL conversation this month because teams aren’t even practicing in pads yet. The talk about the possibility of starts and stops to the NFL season due to COVID-19 tests might also prevent fans from emotionally investing like they usually do, at least until they see games being played.

However, maybe the dreams of a record-setting NFL season in terms of television ratings need to be readjusted. It’s just another way 2020 has been wholly unpredictable.

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