Inside the NFL’s Recent Thanksgiving Ratings and Why They’ll Rebound This Year

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Thanksgiving in America is, for better or worse, associated with the three Fs: food, family, and football.

The latter comes from the NFL’s tradition of playing games on Thanksgiving every year since the Akron Pros and the Canton Bulldogs faced off on Turkey Day back in 1920. Chances are, at least part of your day with your family is going to be spent gathered around the TV, enjoying the game and digesting your turkey.

In recent years, though, Americans have found other ways to spend their holiday.

From 1970 to 2005, football fans were treated to two games every Thanksgiving: one featuring the Dallas Cowboys and one showcasing the Detroit Lions. Then in 2006, the league started playing three games — one each for Dallas and Detroit, plus a third contest in the primetime slot televised by NBC. The other two are televised by CBS and FOX.

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In 2016 and 2017,  NFL ratings showed strange trends. In 2016, an average of 16.5 million people watched any given NFL regular-season game. That was an eight percent drop from 2015. Thanksgiving was something of a different story, however.

The early game between Detroit and Minnesota saw a nine percent jump in audience size from what that time slot accomplished in 2015. The afternoon game between Dallas and Washington had a household rating of 15.6, up from 15.3 in 2015 (side note: that game was the most watched regular season in NFL game since 1995).

The night game was the only contest with a smaller audience than the year before. In that showdown, Pittsburgh demolished Indianapolis 28-7 with the majority of the Steelers’ points coming in the first quarter and a half. Naturally, fans flipped away resulting in a viewership of a 10.8 household rating, a 26 percent drop from the previous year.

In 2017, all three Thanksgiving NFL games saw a drop in total viewership from the previous year. The early game (Lions-Vikings) fell 10 percent, the afternoon game (Chargers-Cowboys) 25 percent, and the night game (Giants-Redskins) 19 percent. Overall viewership for the NFL was down 9.7 percent from the previous season.

Pam Chvotkin, a veteran of the sports broadcasting world and adjunct sports marketing professor at the University of Alabama, hypothesizes that this could be due to the differences in the overall on-field product.

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“When we look at the marketing basics of what sells and what deters fans from a good product, we can look at a number of contributing factors,” Chvotkin says. “The product itself in 2016 was too long. There were more ads and stoppage of play than actual football played. There were more penalties than fan celebrations (which is still a problem). The league has since tried to fix this issue by helping to reduce the breakup of the fluidity of the game.”

Overall, it’s probably a fool’s errand to pin down an exact reason for the NFL’s ratings dip in 2016 and 2017. The media coverage of a presidential election played a part, as it does every four years. Various off-field and player-safety issues very well could have turned a few people away. With Thanksgiving, specifically, there’s also the added wrinkle of college basketball making a push to take over the holiday with high-profile events like the Maui Invitational and the PK80 in 2017.

This year, however, expect the viewership on Thanksgiving Day to rise.

Through the first 11 weeks of the season, the NFL has seen a small bump in overall viewership from 2017. That bump has been about two percent with 15.25 million viewers across all six broadcast windows. Several sports broadcasting professionals attribute this to an evolving sociocultural climate, as well as shifting offensive philosophies in the league. Jeremy St. Louis of beIN SPORTS is one of those people.

“For me, I think ratings are up because the political climate around the game is not what it was a year ago,” St. Louis stated. “That, and the competitive performances we’re seeing this year is helping the league with viewers.”

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As St. Louis mentioned, offense is extremely hot in pro football right now. The number of points scored, passing touchdowns, and total touchdowns in the league are all on pace to break league records this season. Defense may win championships, but offense puts people in seats — or, in this case, on couches in front of the TV.

Chvotkin can attest to the draw that high-octane offense creates.

“The quality of the NFL games — high-scoring, close matchups — are a big driving factor,” Chvotkin said. “The rookie seasons of new and fresh quarterbacks are bringing excitement to fan bases. Even with a ratings dip, live sporting events continue to be among the top shows among the key 18-49 demo. The Chiefs/Rams game (from this past week) gave Monday Night Football its best overnight rating since 2014.”

It also helps that this year’s games are all divisional matchups with Detroit playing Chicago in the early slot, Dallas playing its fiercest rival, Washington, in the afternoon, and the Atlanta Falcons heading to New Orleans to face a rolling Saints team in primetime. If 2016 is any indication, rivalries have great potential to draw numbers.

If watching NFL games is part of your family’s holiday tradition, you’ll be in good company this year as more people will come back to enjoy America’s game amidst reheating leftovers and getting a jump on Black Friday sales.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said it best earlier this season in an interview with The Boston Globe: “I think [the NFL] had been the one area of escape that was a communal thing, and I think we brought it back to that, and that’s great. The product this year has been overwhelmingly accepted, our ratings are up, and I think a lot of it is because people just want to watch football.”