Thanksgiving Sports Ratings Predictions – Sports Media Watch

One of the biggest bank holiday weekends in recent sports history includes three historic rivalries laden with playoff (or KO game) implications – Giants-Cowboys, Michigan-Ohio State and the oldest of them all, USA-England, all on the same network . How big will the audience be?

Expect overall wins for the NFL Thanksgiving games

It’s the rare occasion when one can confidently predict an audience of over 40 million viewers, but the Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game is expected to take part in the AFC and NFC championships and the Super Bowl in that exclusive company. Out-of-home viewing hasn’t just lifted the NFL, it’s supercharged the holiday crowd to the point that 40 million may well be the lower limit of what to expect for the marquee dinnertime window. Last year, the Raiders Cowboys averaged 40.8 million viewers on that slot — the highest-ever Thanksgiving game and the first NFL regular-season game since 1990 to surpass 40 million.

This year’s game numbers are set to do even better given the matchup. The rivalry between the Giants and the Cowboys was once the NFL’s answer to the Yankees and the Red Sox, a pairing guaranteed to make waves. Then New York fell on hard times. Indeed, the fact that these teams meet on Thanksgiving is an indication that the rivalry wasn’t as great as it has been in the past (Thanksgiving is such a sure thing in the ratings that the NFL usually has its top-tier Matchups not scheduled for vacation). Out of the blue, Big Blue has become relevant again this season — their 7-3 record puts them in second place in a surprisingly strong NFC East. It just so happens that they are level with the Cowboys, making Thursday’s game the teams’ most important matchup in years.

Given the markets involved, the rivalry, the stakes and the time window, you can expect this game to easily top the 40 million mark – and likely the Giants-49ers in 1990 (41.6 million) as the most watched regular game will surpass the NFL for decades.

NFL: Giants-Cowboys (4:30 p.m. Thurs FOX). Forecast: 42.3 million viewers.

As for the other Thanksgiving Day games, the Buffalo Bills have a national fan base that far exceeds their market size. With the Lions not bad at 4-6 this season, the early Thanksgiving window has a good chance of picking up and a multi-year high. The early game last year had 28.2 million viewers, the highest number since 2014 (29.4 million).

NFL: Bills-Lions (Thu CBS, 12:30 p.m.). Forecast: 28.5 million viewers.

The primetime game has long been an afterthought of Thanksgiving, at least compared to the afternoon windows. Last year, 20 million fewer viewers watched the Thanksgiving nightcap than the Cowboys’ previous game. Patriots-Vikings is a better matchup than NBC normally comes on Thanksgiving night — even after Minnesota popped up from Dallas last weekend — but don’t expect anything different this time. On the plus side, the bar for success is a bit lower and even 22 million would be the highest in the window since 2014.

NFL: Patriots-Vikings (8:20 p.m. Thurs. NBC). Forecast: 21.9 million viewers.

Will USMNT-England reach an all-time record audience?

A Winter World Cup was nobody’s wish, least of all FOX – which was so unhappy with the arrangement that FIFA awarded it an additional World Cup in 2026 without bringing the rights to market. Still, the network makes the most of it, playing up the late date with an advertising campaign Jon Hamm as Santa Claus and the slightly tortured slogan “Tis’ the World Cup” and utilizing some unique scheduling opportunities – like playing the USMNT on Thanksgiving weekend, a potential ratings gold mine.

Certainly, Black Friday isn’t the same as Thanksgiving, one reason college football schedules lackluster games for the date and leaves its best rivalries for Saturday. It’s traditionally a big shopping day, the kind of activity that draws people away from their TVs. So it’s a relatively untapped space for good reason. However, there is an opportunity for co-viewing with the right matchup.

The USMNT-England rivalry heralded the arrival of football as a major US television 12 years ago when their clash in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup drew 13 million viewers on ABC – then an unheard of number for an early-round encounter. This game aired on a Sunday afternoon in June with little competition.

There has been talk that this year’s game could set a record attendance, but that will be a difficult task. The most-watched soccer match of all time on US television was the USWNT-Japan final at the 2015 Women’s World Cup (26.7m), followed by the Germany-Argentina 2014 Men’s Final (26.5m) and USMNT-Portugal -Group game 2014 (24.7 million). Looking at single-network highs alone, the 2015 finals rank first (25.4m on FOX), followed by USMNT-Portugal (18.2m on ESPN). For the past two years, numbers like that have been simply unattainable for anything outside of NFL games and college football’s national championship.

The first USMNT game in this World Cup averaged around 12 million viewers on a Monday afternoon slot, excluding the help of holidays (8.3 million on FOX and 3.4 million on Telemundo and Peacock). The question is how much of a boost Black Friday will bring.

FIFA World Cup group match: USMNT-England (2p Fr. FOX). Prediction: 14.0m on FOX, 4.8m on Telemundo/Peacock, 18.8m combined.

Can Michigan-Ohio State Viewership Reach 2016—or 2006?

After Giants-Cowboys on Thursday and USMNT-England on Friday, FOX crowns what is probably its greatest three-day stretch of all time with #3 Michigan-#2 Ohio State on Saturday. The game is never bigger than when both teams finish in the top five. Six years ago, their No. 2 vs. No. 3 meeting averaged just under 17 million viewers — still the largest audience for a college football game (excluding bowls and conference championships) since 2011. Sixteen years ago, their titanic match between No. 1 and No. 2 averaged more than 21 million, the highest since 1993. Both games predated the out-of-home era. An increase compared to 2016 seems almost certain, because last year’s game had almost the same number of spectators. Is 2006 within reach?

This year’s meeting marks the first time the rivals have met unbeaten since 2006 (both losing just one defeat in 2016). Don’t expect a repeat of this year’s viewership, though. There was no conference championship game back then and only two teams were battling for the national championship – a stake that simply cannot be reproduced today. (Also forgotten, the game aired in a later window at 3:30 p.m. ET in 2006.)

Will Michigan-Ohio State Overtake USMNT-England? The most likely answer is “yes and no”. There will likely be a bigger draw on FOX, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the football game had more viewers overall.

CFB: #3 Michigan-#2 Ohio State (Noon Sa FOX). Prediction: 19.4 million viewers.

Once upon a time, Notre Dame-USC was one of college football’s most-watched games. The demise of the Trojans put an end to that. Now that USC is back in the running, look for this game to reclaim its place as one of the sport’s top attractions. Their last Thanksgiving weekend gathering — four years ago — averaged 7.7 million viewers. Given the stakes (and the display outside the house) expect bigger numbers this time.

CFB: #15 Notre Dame-#6 USC (7:30 p.m. Sat ABC). Prediction: 10.01 million viewers.

Even looking at the playoff race from the outside, Alabama remains college football’s biggest draw. The Tide has played in five of the nine most-watched games this season, more than any other team — including a matchup against Mississippi two weeks ago after their playoff hopes were already (largely) wiped out. The Iron Bowl will, of course, pale in comparison to Michigan-Ohio State and likely Notre Dame-USC, but still expect a top-ten crowd of the season.

CFB: Auburn-#7 Alabama (3:30 p.m. Sat CBS). Prediction: 9.02 million viewers.

A direct introduction from the USMNT-England game should present UCLA-Cal to an unusually large audience on Friday afternoon. No conference Pac-12 game — with the exception of the championship — has surpassed five million viewers since 2014 (USC-Stanford: 6.54 million). Could that number be in the game with a big lead and little competition? In the same window last year, Colorado-Utah had less than two million.

CFB: #18 UCLA-Cal (4:30 p.m. Fri. FOX). Forecast: 4.04 million


Previous Predictions

— World Series Game 6: Phillies Astros. Forecast: 6.8, 13.31M; Result: 6.1, 12.55M.
– NFL Sunday Night Football: Titans Chiefs. Forecast: 9.8, 18.98 million; Result: 9.7, 17.69 million
– NFL National Window: Rams-Buccaneers. Forecast: 11.5, 22.59M; Result: 10.6, 20.25M.
— CFB: Tennessee-Georgia. Forecast: 6.4, 11.79 million; Result: 6.7, 13.06M.
— CFB: Alabama-LSU. Forecast: 3.2, 5.36M; Result: 3.9, 7.58M
– NASCAR Cup Series Finals: Phoenix. Forecast: 3.03 million; Result: 3.21 million
— MLS Cup: Philadelphia – LAFC. Forecast: 975,000 (FOX), 1.29M (total); Result: 1.49M (FOX), 2.16M (overall).

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