The NFL season opener has evolved into a huge television event, and the league has done a great job building the anticipation for tonight’s matchup between Green Bay and Seattle. The last four NFL kickoff games have been the most-watched in the event’s history, averaging nearly 26 million viewers collectively. Below are the highest-viewed NFL kickoff games since the inception of the event in 2002:
2010 – Minnesota at New Orleans
27.5 million viewers (NBC)
The Saints beat the Brett Favre-led Vikings 14-9 in the Superdome in a rematch of the thrilling 2009-10 NFC Championship game. This marked the final season opener for Brett Favre, who retired once and for all after the 2010-11 season.
2011 – New Orleans at Green Bay
27.1 million viewers (NBC)
In a matchup featuring the past two Super Bowl champions, the Packers beat the Saints 42-34 at Lambeau Field despite over 400 yards of passing by Drew Brees. Brees would set the single-season passing yards record that year, but both teams would go on to lose in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
2013 – Baltimore at Denver
25.1 million viewers (NBC)
The Ravens lost 49-27 at Mile High Stadium to the eventual AFC Champion Broncos. In an NFL kickoff Game first, the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens were forced to play on the road due to a scheduling conflict with the Orioles that couldn’t be rectified. In his second season with the Broncos, Peyton Manning would go on to win the NFL MVP award, while setting single-season records for passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477).
2012 – Dallas at N.Y. Giants
23.9 million viewers (NBC)
The Cowboys beat the Giants 24-17, ending an eight-game winning streak for the defending Super Bowl champions in the kickoff game. The game was moved to Wednesday night from its usual Thursday prime-time slot due to the Democratic National Convention.
2009 – Tennessee at Pittsburgh
20.9 million viewers (NBC)
In an uneventful season-opening matchup, the Steelers beat the Titans 13-10 at Heinz Field on an overtime field goal by Jeff Reed.
2006 – Miami at Pittsburgh
19.2 million viewers (NBC)
The Steelers beat the Nick Saban-led Dolphins 28-17 at Heinz Field in the first season under Commissioner Roger Goodell. This season marked several new league broadcasting arrangements: NBC began its first season as rightsholder to Sunday Night Football; ESPN took over Monday Night Football from ABC; CBS and Fox extended their current conference rights packages; and flex scheduling was introduced to provide broadcasters with more favorable late-season matchups.
2003 – N.Y. Jets at Washington
19.1 million viewers (ABC)
Steve Spurrier and the Redskins beat the Jets 16-13 at FedEx Field. After this season, the NFL kickoff game would feature the defending the Super Bowl champion as host. Neither the Redskins or Jets would come close to repeat appearances, as both teams finished 5-11 and 6-10 respectively that year. Steve Spurrier would leave the NFL after the season, eventually returning to college coaching in 2005.
2005 – Oakland at New England
18.0 million viewers (ABC)
The Patriots beat the Raiders 30-20 at Gillette Stadium in the team’s second straight year of hosting the NFL Kickoff.
2007 – New Orleans at Indianapolis
17.8 million viewers (NBC)
The Peyton Manning-led Colts blew out the Saints 41-10 in the RCA Dome. The Colts were a Super Bowl-repeat favorite, but were overshadowed by the eventual 18-1 New England Patriots.
2004 – Indianapolis at New England
16.9 million viewers (ABC)
The Patriots topped the Colts 27-24 in rematch of the 2003-04 AFC Championship game. This game marked the fifth time Peyton Manning’s Colts faced Tom Brady’s Patriots, with Brady winning all five.
2008 – Washington at N.Y. Giants
13.5 million viewers (NBC)
The Giants beat the Redskins 16-7 in a game the NFL moved up 90 minutes after taking the Republican National Convention into consideration. The game’s rating was still impacted by the convention and the league would not take its chances the next Presidential election year, moving the NFL kickoff game to Wednesday in 2012.
2002 – San Francisco at N.Y. Giants
10.8 million viewers (ESPN)
The 49ers beat the Giants 16-13 at Giants Stadium in the first-ever NFL kickoff game. The new Thursday night event was hosted in New York to coincide with the upcoming one year anniversary of 9/11. The on-field action featured Giants star Michael Strahan (above) coming off his NFL-record-setting 22.5 sack season.
Viewership numbers via TV by the Numbers