NFL’s Thursday Night Football Concludes Bumpy First Season

This year marked the first in the NFL’s new initiative to play games on most Thursday nights during the regular season. NFL Network’s package expanded from 8 to 13. NBC added a Thanksgiving night game. Add in the season opener (which was actually on a Wednesday because of a political convention) and there was weekday football every week this season until now. There are no Thursday night games in weeks 16 or 17.

Many of the games, which air on league-owned NFL Network in the States, were duds. The best matchup was probably the very first when bitter rivals Chicago and Green Bay played in week 2. The Packers won 23-10, but the Bears turned out to have a good season as well. They are tied for the last NFC wildcard spot. Who knew on October 18 that the Seahawks and 49ers would play each other on national television again two months later? This week they play on Sunday Night Football. Aside from those two, there have been no Thursday Night games this year that featured teams that now have .500 or better records. Three times teams who both have sub-.500 records met.

Of course it isn’t entirely the NFL’s fault for poor scheduling. Who knew that Cam Newton would be so bad that he’d throw three picks and his Panthers would get destroyed by the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in week 3? Who knew that New Orleans would have a mediocre season, taking some of the buzz away from the NFL Network’s second most buzzworthy matchup against the Falcons? Who knew that the Eagles would completely collapse after September taking any buzz away from their matchup against the Bengals? All of those games looked like quality national television matchups in August. Even NBC got in on the underachieving party as the hapless Jets got blown out by New England on Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t all bad for the Thursday night experiment though. Many of the games early on were decided by less than a touchdown, although the same can’t be said for those in November and December. The Titans upsetting the Steelers in October was memorable. Other than that, and maybe the Bucs beating the Vikings, they’re weren’t any upsets all year in an NFL season filled with parity.

Personally I see no harm in having Thursday night games, even if the Browns played the Jaguars every week. They give fans a chance to see their favourite team on national TV one more time per year. Every team played once on Thursday this year (the Giants and Cowboys did twice including the Wednesday night opener). That seems fair to me.

Of course the NFL is mostly concerned with ratings. It seems that in America, the ratings are doing just fine. Despite carriage issues with NFL Network in some markets, Thursday Night Football won the night on cable every  week. In Canada I only have ratings for November and December available to me now. It is worth noting that three of the four games in October aired on Sportsnet One due to the MLB playoffs, so this takes into account 7 of the 11 games that aired on the main Sportsnet channels. Those seven games averaged 336, 000 viewers. That’s not as impressive as the late Sunday games, which regularly bring in close to half a million for Citytv alone. It is also not as impressive as the Sunday or Monday nighters, which are averaging 533, 000 and 521, 000 viewers on TSN over the same time period. The highest rated Thursday game was 421, 000 for Miami @ Buffalo (only one other topped 400, 000 viewers). Those two games only beat one Monday night game and no Sunday night games since November 1.

Having said all that, Thursday night games still do better in the Canadian ratings than many scripted cable shows and every NBA regular season game. Especially considering the NHL lockout, they are valuable sports programming.