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NFL ratings: ‘Thursday Night Football’ Buccaneers-Bears game offers mixed results for NFL

Thursday Night Football returned to FOX to kick off Week 5 of the NFL season and with it came a ratings boost for the league and network. However, the news wasn't all positive for the NFL and FOX following Thursday night's Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Chicago Bears game.

Matt Johnson

Thursday Night Football returned to FOX to kick off Week 5 of the NFL season and with it came a ratings boost for the league and network. However, the news wasn’t all positive for the NFL and FOX following Thursday night’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Chicago Bears game.

While the move from broadcasting exclusively on NFL Network to showing the game on NFLN and FOX nearly doubled the viewership from Week 4, there are still some troubling signs for the NFL.

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NFL ratings: Buccaneers-Bears game wins Thursday night, viewership dips from 2019

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady vs. Chicago Bears in NFL Week 5
Oct 8, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) drops back to pass against the Chicago Bears during the first quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

The matchup between Tom Brady and Nick Foles, a Super Bowl LII rematch with different teams, dominated its fellow television competitors on Thursday. However, the Thursday Night Football broadcast fell quite short of marks from the 5 TNF game in 2019.

According to Deadline.com, 10.07 million viewers tuned in for the Buccaneers-Bears game and the broadcast drew an initial 2.9 rating among the adults 18-49 demographic. It’s a significant improvement from the Denver Broncos and New York Jets game in Week 4, which drew 5.4 million viewers in the early data.

The Nielsen ratings and viewership totals will increase when the final numbers are released on Friday night. However, the game will likely fall well short of the TNF Week 5 game in 2019 between the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams (14.26 million).

It’s also a slight dip from CBS’ special Week 4 broadcast on Monday evening, the rescheduled game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. Despite Cam Newton not playing, 12.7 million viewers tuned in for that game.

The results match a recurring trend we’ve seen throughout the NFL season. While viewership is down this year, compared to the 2019 season, the NFL is still dominating its competition.

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NFL dominates television ratings, despite drop in viewership

Across professional sports, there has been a noteworthy decline in television ratings. At a time when there is a presidential election and more games than ever to consume, the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an oversaturation of sports content.

MLB has struggled to draw consistently high numbers during its postseason, while the NHL had the least-watched Stanley Cup in over a decade. The NFL is also losing viewers for a significant number of its top broadcasts, but the league is still holding strong compared to its peers.

Losing millions of viewers is the last thing the NFL wanted during a year when it will already lose billions of dollars in stadium revenue. Fortunately, the league is in such a strong standing that it remains the most-watched event every night there is a game.

  • The Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens thriller on Monday Night Football in Week 3 was ratings gold for ESPN, enjoying a 32% increase from the Week 3 MNF broadcast in 2019.
  • Coming into Week 4, the NFL had the 15 highest-rated shows through the first three weeks of the season. Even with some numbers down, ESPN, NFLN, NBC, FOX and CBS were all benefitting from football’s return.

Networks seem more than happy with the returns. FOX is discussing a new record-breaking offer for expanded broadcasting rights for future seasons. Meanwhile, ESPN may bid for the opportunity to broadcast future Super Bowls. With the NFL’s contracts with every major network set to expire soon and a renewal with Amazon for the streaming rights to TNF finished, money is coming. In fact, the NFL could draw $8-10 billion annually in tv revenue alone by 2022.

Even if Sunday Night Football broadcasts, like the Philadelphia and San Francisco 49ers game, aren’t drawing record numbers, the likes of NBC, FOX, CBS and ESPN are still happy. At a time when so many are struggling to draw eyes, the NFL offers a ticket to 10-plus million viewers every Sunday, Monday and Thursday.

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President Donald Trump takes on NFL and national anthem protests

After seeing countless players react with outrage to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the NFL reversed course after years of focusing on football. With voices around the league growing louder, commissioner Roger Goodell responded to players’ demands for action.

Goodell expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, while admitting he didn’t handle the players’ demonstration correctly in 2016. In regards to Colin Kaepernick, with athletes like LeBron James wanting a direct apology, Goodell acknowledged the NFL should have listened to Kaepernick’s message.

The league itself also took action. It pledged $250 million to combat systemic racism and we saw league-wide protests in Week 1, which have continued ever since.

At a time when police brutality and systemic inequalities in the United States are a heated topic across political lines, the NFL’s shift comes in the thick of an election year. As we saw in 2016, it is once again having an impact on viewership for NFL games.

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2020 presidential election vs. NFL

The NFL saw its ratings take a hit during the 2016 election. Even when games weren’t directly competing against the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the focus on a presidential election attracted more attention. With Trump and Joe Biden now in a heated race, we see similar results.

While no SNF or MNF games will go head-to-head with a major election broadcast, it’s a different story for Thursday Night Football. However, the NFL might have caught a slight break with Trump refusing to take part in the virtual debate. If his decision hold firm, it eliminates direct competition that the NFL would face on Oct. 15. Of course, a third debate remains.

  • Oct. 22: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles

With a new CBA signed and record-breaking television contracts on the horizon, the NFL will survive the looming financial hit this year. Once the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election is behind them, the NFL should return to staggering profits.