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NFL ratings: ‘Thursday Night Football’ leads night, viewership down sharply from 2019

Where is Falcons star Matt Ryan in our latest NFL QB rankings?
Oct 29, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) calls out an audible during the first quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

A week after the NFL ratings for Thursday Night Football plummeted opposite the presidential debate, viewership ticked up slightly for a Week 8 matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. However, the numbers are still down sharply from 2019.

While FOX’s Thursday Night Football broadcast didn’t have to compete against a debate or the World Series, reclaiming the lead for viewership, it wasn’t all good news for the NFL.

TV ratings: Thursday Night Football kicks off Week 8 with some concerning signs

According to ShowBuzzDaily, Thursday night’s meeting between the Falcons and Panthers drew in a peak of 8.43 million viewers to kick off Week 8 of the NFL season.

It’s an improvement from the 8.18 million who tuned in for the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles game in Week 7. The total audience size will also improve when the numbers from the West Coast are factored in on Friday night, but there are still troubling signs for the NFL.

For the second consecutive TNF game, fewer than 10 million people tuned in to watch and the overall rating (2.2) in the 18-49 demographic is still down. By comparison, per SportsMediaWatch, 13.48 million viewers watched the Washington Football Team and Minnesota Vikings on FOX and NFL Network for Week 8 in 2019. It also boasted an 8.3 rating.

Ultimately, the final numbers from the Falcons and Panthers game will eclipse 10 million viewers with FOX furthering its lead over rival networks for attracting the eyes of viewers on Thursday nights. But, this does represent a trend we’ve seen throughout the NFL season.

Thursday Night Football ratings for 2020 NFL season

Compared to the likes of NBC’s Sunday Night Football and ESPN’s Monday Night Football, TNF has never been quite as popular. However, with the broadcast still a lock to bring in 10-plus million viewers, FOX and Amazon have happily partnered with the NFL.

Amazon renewed its streaming rights with the NFL for TNF this offseason, while FOX is preparing a record-breaking offer for expanded broadcasting rights after 2022. All of this comes at a time, when compared to the 2019 season, ratings have generally been down.

  • Week 7: Matched up with the final presidential debate, ratings plummeted with the NFL falling short of the top spot on the night for the first time in ages with only 10 million viewers.
  • Week 6: Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills game, originally scheduled for TNF, was moved to Monday evening. The change to the NFL schedulewas the result of a COVID-19 outbreak in Week 5. It ultimately drew 12.16 million viewers.
  • Week 5: FOX dominated Thursday night with its Tampa Bay Buccaneersand Chicago Bears broadcast, the game saw 14.71 million eyes compared to 14.26 million in Week 5 2019 for the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks clash.
  • Week 4: Broadcast exclusively on NFL Network, the New York Jets and Denver Broncos held steady numbers for a single-network broadcast with 5.41 million viewers. 
  • Week 3: In a Florida-based matchup, which hurts viewership, 5.43 million people tuned in for the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets game. While it dominated the night for audience size, it lost nearly one million viewers (6.32 million) from the Week 3 TNF contest in 2019 between the Jaguarsand Tennessee Titans.
  • Week 2: The official TNF opener between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, held relatively strong with 6.68 million watching Joe Burrow vs. Baker Mayfield.

A positive for the NFL, the end of the presidential debates and competition with the MLB postseason and NBA playoffs are pushing things in the right direction. Additionally, the viewership numbers are starting to increase compared to prior seasons, especially with the benefit of games being shown on FOX and streamed on Amazon after Week 4.

President Donald Trump vs. Roger Goodell and national anthem protests

President Trump during Daytona 500
Feb 16, 2020; Daytona Beach, Florida, USA; President Donald Trump the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Since the 2020 election cycle began, President Donald Trump has increased his attention on the NFL and players who peacefully protest during the national anthem. While it had been a rallying cry before this year, the focus on kneeling during the anthem intensified this summer.

Following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers, professional athletes stepped up and called on team owners and league commissioners to follow. After drawing criticism from across the league, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made a dramatic change.

After years of avoiding social injustice issues, encouraging players to focus on matters in their private time, Goodell started using his platform as commissioner.

He expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledged he handled the players’ demonstration poorly in 2016. Regarding Colin Kaepernick, with athletes like LeBron James calling for a public apology, Goodell said the NFL should have listened to Kaepernick’s message.

With Goodell now speaking out publicly, more players and teams stepped forward when the season kicked off. The NFL pledged $250 million to combat systemic racism and fans witnessed league-wide protests in Week 1, which has continued.

In response, Trump vowed to boycott the NFL in June and didn’t hesitate to call out the league on Twitter or during campaign events. As the regular season drew closer, the President of the United States said he’d be very happy if the NFL season didn’t happen.

Ever since the first game started, much of the focus has centered on the NFL ratings. Viewership is down, for the most part this season, but the NFL is in much better standing than the likes of the MLB and NHL.

Related: World Series sets ratings low

While the NFL might have lost a bit of public support, some of which may return after the 2020 election, the focus for the league is on support from television networks. Based off the deals already being offered, it would seem the NFL won’t regret the route it took.