Nobody at Disney’s ESPN or the NFL is celebrating. But ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” telecast of the Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals generated record TV numbers as millions of viewers watched and prayed for Damar Hamlin after he suffered a cardiac arrest on the field.
Disney’s ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, and ESPN Deportes averaged 23.6 million viewers between 8:28 p.m. and 10:10 p.m. ET when game directors threw the coverage to anchor Scott Van Pelt.
That made Bills-Bengals the most-watched telecast since ESPN took over the MNF package in 2006. It topped the previous record of 21.8 million viewers for the Green Bay Packers-Minnesota Vikings in 2009.
But given the game’s horrible circumstances, an ESPN spokesman said the network hasn’t determined whether it will factor Monday’s telecast into its seasonal average or historical records.
Hamlin, a second-year safety, collapsed in the first quarter after tackling Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. Paramedics rushed to the field to administer CPR – and try to restart the 24-year-old player’s heart.
ESPN personalities such as Van Pelt and Booger McFarland drew critical praise for their restrained but empathetic coverage of a dire life-and-death event.
But ESPN and the NFL continue to offer conflicting narratives about whether the league considered resuming play Monday night.
During the telecast, ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck repeatedly informed viewers the game was expected to resume after a 5-minute warm-up period for both teams.
The network even showed Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow tossing practice throws.
But Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of operations, denied the league considered resuming play after the game was postponed Monday night.
On Wednesday, Vincent reiterated the league’s version of events. He said he had no clue where Buck or ESPN got their information about a 5-minute warmup.
“At no time, in my discussion in that hour-long timeframe, did we ever — and the mic is open, and there are multiple, multiple people [in those discussions] — give any directives [about] getting players ready to play,” Vincent said.
Hamlin has shown “remarkable improvement” according to the Bills.
On Thursday, his agent Rob Butler told CNN that he was awake and able to hold hands with his family.
– Front Office Sports Senior Reporter AJ Perez contributed to this story