Coming off a strong Week 2 for viewership, the NFL went into Week 3 hoping “Thursday Night Football” would build upon a turnaround for the league’s ratings. Instead, the NFL suffered a stunning hit to its ratings for Thursday’s battle between the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Thursday Night Football loses nearly 1 million viewers in Week 3
Competing against Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the NFL didn’t exactly field its best teams on Thursday night. While it still finished as the most-watched telecast on the night, “Thursday Night Football” also lost nearly one million viewers.
According to ShowBuzzdaily.com, the Week 3 game between the Dolphins and Jaguars drew 5.43 million viewers. It’s a stunning drop from the 6.67 million who tuned in last Thursday and is also a steep hit from the ratings in 2019.
In recent years, the NFL has used its early “Thursday Night Football” games to broadcast some of the least popular teams in the league. In Week 3 of the 2019 season, per SportsMediaWatch, the Jaguars-Tennessee Titans game had 6.32 million viewers.
The viewership for “Thursday Night Football” has fluctuated in recent years, with the audience size typically dependent on the matchup. The numbers from Week 3 of the 2019 season were a 27% dip in viewership from 2018, when the New York Jets faced the Cleveland Browns (8.63 million). In 2017, the Los Angeles Rams-San Francisco 49ers game held 7.45 million viewers.
NFL ratings: 2020 season opens with steep drop in viewership for Week 1
The NFL spent the offseason changing its tone on national anthem protests and became more active in supporting calls for change in the United States.
During the summer, commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league got it wrong regarding player protests and expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. When athletes like LeBron James called on him to speak out about Colin Kaepernick, who was the first NFL player to kneel during the anthem, Goodell said he should have listened to Kaepernick’s message sooner.
After the NFL pledged $250 million to combat systemic racism in the United States, players and teams seemingly felt empowered to be more active. When Week 1 kicked off, we saw demonstrations across the league.
- Before the NFL Kickoff Game, the Houston Texans protested during the national anthem. The Texans and Kansas City Chiefs also took part in a moment of unity.
- The Minnesota Vikings hosted the family of George Floyd and the team donated $5 million to social justice causes.
- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh defended player protests, saying they “want America to be great.”
- Before the first “Monday Night Football” game in Week 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers held a banner in protest during the anthem.
Immediately, the NFL’s ratings sank to open the 2020 season. Even with the defending Super Bowl champions in the NFL Kickoff Game and the Dallas Cowboys on “Sunday Night Football” in Week 1, it wasn’t enough.
- The Texans-Chiefs opener saw a massive hit to the NFL’s viewership, with NBC’s ratings plummeting.
- While “Sunday Night Football” is typically the most-watched event on television each week, it also lost a staggering number of viewers to begin the 2020 season.
- Things didn’t improve for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” doubleheader, with both games suffering a ratings crash.
- Additionally, the latest season of “Hard Knocks” was the least-watched in the show’s history.
The very scenario Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones feared was playing out. Amid the NFL’s move to become more active in social justice and supporting players using their platform to create change, fans seemed to be turning the games off and boycotting the NFL.
NFL rebounds with strong Week 2 ratings
If the NFL was concerned a potential boycott would last throughout the 2020 season, the issue seemed to subside the following week. While teams still took part in peaceful demonstrations, including kneeling during the national anthem, the NFL’s ratings climbed.
- The “Thursday Night Football” opener in Week 2 between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals did well, with a slight uptick in viewership from the Week 2 TNF game in 2019.
- While “Sunday Night Football” saw a dip in its audience size, NBC still blew its competition out of the water.
- Meanwhile, FOX’s national broadcast of the Cowboys-Atlanta Falcons game drew massive numbers.
- ESPN rebounded in Week 2 with a significant spike in viewership and historic local ratings in Las Vegas.
Not only are ratings for major networks looking great, but the NFL could soon be rewarded for it. FOX is reportedly willing to pay $2 billion per season for the broadcasting rights to games after the 2021 NFL season. The network wants to expand its live NFL coverage and it isn’t alone, with ESPN also in the mix.
With networks willing to spend even more to secure the rights to broadcast future NFL games, the league could be looking at $8-10 billion per year coming from television partnerships alone. It’s exactly what the league needed with stadium revenue taking a massive hit in 2020.
Donald Trump responds to the NFL, national anthem protests
Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump has kept his voice present amid the NFL’s recent changes and fluctuating ratings.
Trump said in August he would be happy if the NFL season didn’t happen over players protesting during the anthem. The comments came a month after he vowed to boycott the league if the NFL let players take a knee when the anthem was played.
Unlike in previous seasons, Goodell and the NFL are reportedly prepared to stand up to President Trump and defend the players’ right to peacefully protest. However, when Trump has called out the league on Twitter, it has not responded publicly.
There will be even more games this season when the NFL’s ratings dip, especially when its “Thursday Night Football” games compete against two presidential debates in October. Ultimately, the NFL might be willing to accept the hit given it still dominated on Thursday night, but losing one million viewers in a single week is impossible to ignore.