NFL ratings: Bucs-Cowboys kicks off 2021 with strong debut

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Even after all the havoc and chaos of the last 18 months, one sports media truism is still clear: big names + big teams + great game + NFL = high ratings.

Preliminary indications are that Thursday night's season debut, which featured Tom Brady leading the Bucs to a last-second comeback over the Dallas Cowboys, was a tremendous ratings success. Final numbers are yet to arrive, but the initial overnight ratings were a 16% increase over 2020 and the highest in five years, according to Sports Business Journal's John Ourand:

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Last year's Thursday night kickoff between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs totaled 20.54 million viewers. 

Strong Week 1 ratings for college football, combined with the Thursday night numbers, give the initial indication that viewing habits are returning to pre-pandemic levels, at the very least. 

The question now is whether the NFL will be able to sustain the momentum from Thursday night. The league effectively went all in with its first game, pushing its best-known player and arguably most popular team right to the front of the line. Sunday's slate will include a late-game matchup of Green Bay against New Orleans and a Sunday night battle of the Rams versus the Bears. 

The NFL's ratings have been a talking point — and, often, a rhetorical weapon — in the ongoing discussion about the changing, and politicization, of traditional media. Regardless of ratings dips, live sports remain among the most attractive properties on television. If the NFL can record strong ratings gains in 2021, it will once again be dealing from its traditional position of strength. 

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes against the Cowboys during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 9, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes against the Cowboys during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 9, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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