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Volume 27 No. 84

SBJ Football: Turkey Day Test For NFL

I’m thankful for the many millions of Americans who wear masks, avoid crowds and do other things that are unpleasant but protect the vulnerable among us. It means a lot to me and my family. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving! 

Ravens Outbreak Pushes NFL Back To The Brink

Just like that, the NFL has moved closer to the breaking point for its 17-week season. If the rescheduled Ravens-Steelers game for Sunday can’t hold, the NFL would have Monday/Tuesday as options, and then -- the heretofore mythical Week 18. Neither team has a bye left, and it the game has to be played -- it’s very meaningful to the AFC playoff picture.

Thanksgiving always had a high chance of being a pandemic pinch point. If for no other reason, six teams were scheduled to play today instead of the usual two -- tripling the likelihood of a team getting a COVID outbreak during a short week. Anyone on a short week is especially exposed, because one of the most valuable tools NFL doctors use to gauge the spread of the virus is the passage of time.

The NFL hadn’t had any COVID-19 schedule adjustments since Oct. 25, but this single one is a doozy. It eliminates NBC’s exclusive primetime window tonight (thought it will be interesting to see how a national game during the usual regional 1:00pm ET window does on Sunday.) Also, it will be the first time the postponement can’t be papered over with regionalization; the NFL will go from dominating the airwaves to nothing after the Cowboys game today.

My colleague John Ourand talked to NBC Sports Chair Pete Bevacqua last night about how the network dealt with the Ravens-Steelers shift.

Sharing NFL Holiday Memories

In the spirit of remembering better days, I asked around the league for tales of past working Thanksgivings. Here’s a sampling:

Former NFL Senior VP/Communications Greg Aiello: "After spending 11 memorable Thanksgivings at Texas Stadium working for the Cowboys (1979-89), my most memorable Thanksgiving there came a few years later as the league office rep in 1993 -- the classic snowy, icy 16-14 Dolphins win highlighted by Leon Lett’s miscue that sunk the Cowboys. Amid the confusion about that play, I went to see the game’s young referee, Ed Hochuli, and typed up his explanation for distribution to the media. What a day!” 

Fox's Jay Glazer: "First of all, last year, doing this at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, it was unbelievable. I grew up going to that parade, and all of a sudden, I’m talking football with the parade behind me, that was a dream come true. (The Fox NFL Sunday crew) ended up flying back (to L.A.) together, and we hit some major headwinds. It took 7.5 hours. It wasn’t the Thanksgiving we were hoping for. ... But we kind of realized we were spending it with family -- our football family. ... You can imagine the kinds of stories that were being told, which I can’t share."

Former NFL Exec VP/Communications & Government Affairs Joe Browne: “I was the AFC publicist in the league office in 1979 when the AFC Oilers defeated the more glamorous Cowboys 30-24 in Dallas. Oilers Coach Bum Phillips matter-of-factly said in the jubilant winning locker room: ‘They may be America’s Team but we’re Texas’ team ... and I wouldn’t have it any other way’! My friend Bum was the best!”

Looking Back At The Start Of A Great Tradition

The NFL and Thanksgiving are so intertwined, it’s hard to picture Turkey Day without pro football. But back in 1934, the Lions took a gamble by scheduling a contest with the Bears for that Thursday. The NFL was small time back then, the Lions were new, and college football ruled the headlines of the day.

But the game was a huge hit, and the Lions never looked back. University of Detroit Stadium sold out 26,000 tickets two weeks in advance, and purportedly turned away many more at the gates.

As proved to be the case so often with the NFL, the real genius was on the media side. Lions owner George A. Richards -- just a year removed from acquiring the Portsmouth, Ohio, franchise and moving it to Detroit -- convinced the 94-station NBC Radio network to carry the game.

It was the first national NFL radio broadcast, the first step toward turning a local event into a nationwide tradition. The Cowboys started in 1966, and in 2006, the NFL added a Thursday night game with no set host. Today is the Lions’ 81st Thanksgiving Day home game. (If you’re doing the math, the game was suspended from ’39 to ’44.)

Thanksgiving Day Games Mean Big NFL Viewership

NFL game broadcasts on Thanksgiving mean big numbers for the league. My colleague Austin Karp notes that over the last two seasons, the two afternoon windows have not only been the league’s two most-watched regular-season games in each season, but among the best TV audiences on all of TV in each of those years.

The Cowboys broadcast has taken the top spot both years. That includes CBS last year drawing 32.6 million viewers for Bills-Cowboys in the 4:30pm ET window, which was the network’s best Thanksgiving Day game in 27 years. On the overall TV landscape over the last two years, the Cowboys game was the seventh-best audience figure for any telecast (sports or entertainment), behind only a handful of playoff games. The Lions game the last two years also has been strong, ranking in the top 15 on the overall TV landscape in both 2019 and 2018.

NBC’s Thanksgiving telecast, which started in 2012, has not yet seen the big audience delivery of the afternoon windows, but the prime-time audience has ranked in TV’s top 50 in each of the last two years (No. 46 and No. 33, respectively). Even if the prime-time audience has fallen short of the afternoon windows, it will be a painful loss for NBC to not have the NFL tonight.

NFL THANKSGIVING DAY GAME AUDIENCE TREND
YEAR
12:30PM
NET
VIEWERS
(000s)
4:30PM
NET
VIEWERS
(000s)
PRIME-TIME
(NBC)
VIEWERS
(000s)
2019
Bears-Lions
Fox
27,093
Bills-Cowboys
CBS
32,643
Saints-Falcons
20,808
2018
Bears-Lions
CBS
26,500
WFT-Cowboys
Fox
30,475
Falcons-Saints
21,727
2017
Vikings-Lions
Fox
24,736
Chargers-Cowboys
CBS
26,277
Giants-WFT
16,905
2016
Vikings-Lions
CBS
27,611
WFT-Cowboys
Fox
35,100
Steelers-Colts
20,882
2015
Eagles-Lions
Fox
25,431
Panthers-Cowboys
CBS
32,487
Bears-Packers
27,751
2014
Bears-Lions
CBS
29,400
Eagles-Cowboys
Fox
32,000
Seahawks-49ers
22,850
2013
Packers-Lions
Fox
28,300
Raiders-Cowboys
CBS
31,675
Steelers-Ravens
21,073
2012
Texans-Lions
CBS
27,300
WFT-Cowboys
Fox
28,700
Patriots-Jets
18,156

NFL Stories That Have Piqued Reader Interest In 2020

There has been plenty of news regarding the 2020 NFL season. But what has been of the most interest to our subscribers?

Leading the list is John Ourand’s piece from Oct. 12 on how NFL viewership looked after four weeks. Then there was a piece I wrote with Ourand back toward the start of the pandemic (April 27) looking at how the NFL was set -- if needed -- to shake up its schedule. Finally there was a profile of the new SoFi Stadium by our facilities writer, Karn Dhingra.

On the SBJ Daily side, the top NFL-focused story involved Ourand breaking the news that ESPN was scrapping Hank Williams Jr. for this season’s “Monday Night Football” open. Also performing well was an interview our own David Rumsey did with Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews on working NFL broadcasts amid the pandemic.

Meet The COVID Turkey Trophy NBC Will Never Use

Before the Ravens-Steelers postponement, NBC created a custom trophy for Michele Tafoya to award to the MVP of the Thursday night game. Why? Pandemic protocols would keep them from using a real bird -- a la John Madden and the tradition that dates back to 1989.

NBC isn’t going to use it now that the game is on Sunday, so this trophy will never see the light of day. But if you’re curious, here it is: