TNF unscathed in head-to-head with conference finals of NBA, NHL

On a packed sports night, Thursday Night Football scored a viewership bump and sank the NBA and NHL by double-digits.

Bengals-Browns averaged 6.68 million viewers in the season premiere of Thursday Night Football on NFL Network, up 1% from Buccaneers-Panthers last year (6.64M) but down 5% from Ravens-Bengals in 2018 (7.02M). Ratings were not immediately available.

Viewership increased despite competition from conference final games in the NBA (Heat-Celtics Game 2: 3.48M) and NHL (Lightning-Islanders Game 6: 1.18M). Keep in mind last year’s game also faced tough competition — a presidential primary debate (14.0M) — and was delayed a half-hour due to inclement weather.

Thursday’s game was the third of eight NFL windows this season to increase over last year.

While the NFL came out of Thursday’s head-to-head unscathed, the NBA and NHL were not so fortunate. Heat-Celtics Game 2 declined 21% from Raptors-Bucks last year, a Friday night game on TNT that aired in a later timeslot (4.39M).

Miami’s win delivered the smallest conference final audience 2007 (Jazz-Spurs Game 2: 3.42M) and the third-smallest since ESPN/ABC acquired NBA rights in the 2002-03 season — with the obvious caveat that no previous conference final games aired opposite the NFL.

The NFL was a bigger drag on the ratings than the game’s unusually early 7 PM ET start time. Viewership fell 13% from Tuesday’s Game 1 (4.01M), which had an even earlier start (6:30 PM) but did not face any notable competition.

It is worth noting that Major League Baseball’s League Championship Series — analogous to an NBA conference final — has had better luck opposite TNF. Each of the last four LCS games to air opposite TNF has averaged at least 5.23 million viewers (including 5.86 million for Astros-Yankees on FS1 last year).

The NBA still fared far better than the NHL, which saw viewership for the Lightning’s series-clinching win over the Islanders drop 44% from the last Eastern Conference Final Game 6 two years ago (Lightning-Capitals: 2.11M).

[Nielsen estimates from ShowBuzz Daily 9.18]

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