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Sports Media: Thanksgiving games a hit for networks no matter the matchup

Back in the spring of 2010, the New Orleans Saints were coming off a Super Bowl victory. Behind star quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints were the type of team every TV network wanted to carry in its biggest windows.

In the spring of that year, as NFL executives were in the middle of creating their schedule, Fox approached with a request that seemed odd at the time. The network wanted to have the Saints play the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

The NFL was resistant to the idea on the theory that it did not want to waste one of its best games on Thanksgiving, which gets a big audience no matter how the matchup looked. For years, the NFL wanted to save its top games for a prime-time or late Sunday afternoon window.

CBS scored big with the Raiders-Cowboys game.getty images

How well have the Thanksgiving windows delivered viewers? The four seasons before Fox made its request had seen Dallas beat Oakland, Seattle, the Jets and Tampa Bay by an average of more than 25 points. All of those games still averaged more than 25 million viewers.

The NFL decided to try out the idea. The game ended up being a nailbiter, with the Saints winning by three points.

More importantly for Fox, it made good business sense and drove more revenue into that Thanksgiving game. With a good matchup to sell, the network’s ad sales force commanded a record high $750,000 per 30-second spot.

As importantly, the game averaged 31.9 million viewers and was the most-watched Thanksgiving game in 12 years.

The NFL scheduled the next several Cowboys Thanksgiving games on Fox with good matchups that would probably anchor a late window on Sunday.

CBS, which also shows games on Thanksgiving, still believed that it didn’t make sense to waste a good game for a window that already had a built-in audience.

By the numbers

29.7 million

Average audience for the three Thanksgiving games this year, the highest since 1998.

17.1 million

Total number of live minutes viewers watched — not surprisingly the highest on record.

38.3 million

Audience for the Raiders-Cowboys game, the third-most-watched NFL regular-season game on record.

Fast forward to this year, and the strategy around scheduling the Thanksgiving games has come full circle. 

The NFL used Thanksgiving to schedule a Cowboys-Raiders game that none of the networks were clamoring to get. The game, which became another nailbiter, posted the highest viewership since 1993. The audience of 38.3 million viewers on CBS is the second-highest Thanksgiving audience since 1998.

Based on these results, it’s a good bet that Fox will push for a less marquee matchup next season when it carries Dallas’ Thanksgiving game.

That decision doesn’t mean Fox was wrong about chasing extra viewers and ad sales revenue back in the early 2010s. But it does underscore the general strength of the NFL in the media marketplace right now. Fox has fewer incentives to use a game like that on Thanksgiving than it would have five or 10 years ago.

Take the Chicago-Detroit game that Fox carried this year as an example. Hardly a TV-friendly matchup, Fox still registered just under $100 million in ad sales, sources said. The Dallas game generally gets about 40% more in ad sales revenue, based on the national popularity of the Cowboys combined with the broadcast popularity of the late afternoon window.

If ad sales executives have a say, you can bet that the league will not be placing a quality opponent opposite Dallas on Thanksgiving for several years.

My guess, look for a division opponent — like Washington or the Giants — to make a trip to Dallas next Thanksgiving.

 

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his weekly newsletter.

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