NFL’s Monday Night Football Draws Third Biggest Regular Season Audience in ESPN History

by Suzanne Halliburton

In hiring Troy Aikman and Joe Buck, ESPN wanted to give its NFL Monday Night Football broadcast a hefty, big-game feel. The sports network got that and more.

The opening Monday Night Football broadcast, with its new theme music, generated the biggest numbers for a regular season game since 2009. Here’s some more context. The viewing numbers were also the highest for an opener since 2006.

And in the process, the game between Denver and Seattle played a part in the Emmys suffering its worst viewing numbers ever.

So how many folks watched? Try nearly 20 million. ESPN counted the numbers from all its channels showing the game. ABC simulcast the broadcast, picking up 10.29 million. The rest of the numbers from those watching on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN+ and ESPN Deportes combined for 9.56 million.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll hugged Russell Wilson, his old quarterback, in this Monday Night Football reunion. Seattle, Washington. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Monday Night Football Game Offered Drama, On Field and Off

The Monday Night Football game had everything to build an audience. There was the new broadcasting team of Aikman-Buck, who ESPN lured away from Fox. Plus, there was another compelling storyline. Russell Wilson, the former Seattle Seahawk quarterback, was returning to town as the leader of the Denver Broncos. Seahawks fans booed Wilson as he took the field. Some fans wore his No. 3 jersey, with his named covered up by the word Traitor. Yes, the Seattle 12th Man is a passionate bunch.

Plus, the game, itself, served the drama with a helping of controversy. Wilson tried in vain to get his team the win in the game’s final seconds. And that attempted win was via a 64-yard field goal attempt. New Broncos head coach Nathanial Hatchett decided against going for a fourth-and-5. Instead, he had the Broncos eat a chunk of time off the clock in the game’s final 50 seconds for the long-distance field goal try. Denver missed, and Seattle won, 17-16.

ESPN has owned the rights to broadcast Monday Night Football since 2006. The most-watched game during this stretch was Minnesota at Green Bay, Oct. 5, 2009. That game drew 21.839 million viewers. The No. 2 regular season MNF telecast was New Orleans at New England, which also came in 2009. It’s audience totaled 21.4 million.

The Sunday Night Football viewing numbers also were huge. Tampa Bay’s 19-3 win over the Dallas Cowboys drew an audience of 25 million. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

All Networks Enjoyed Viewership Increases in NFL Games

And the Monday Night Football numbers weren’t a fluke. Rather, they reflected a weekend trend. NBC’s Sunday Night Football attracted its largest opening audience in seven years. Counting digital numbers, the game between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Bucs averaged 25 million. Sunday Night Football usually is the No. 1 show on network TV. Think of how much bigger the numbers could have been if the game was competitive. The Bucs won, 19-3.

Fox’s early NFL window averaged 18.55 million. That’s up 12 percent from last season’s opener. And the CBS games averaged 17.4 million. That represented CBS best early-game season kickoff since 1998.