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Lackluster Thanksgiving TV Slate May Test NFL’s Dominion Over Holiday

During a year in which everyone’s been watching A LOT of TV, and live sports have seen viewership dips across the board, there were already reasons to be skeptical about how NFL games would fare on Thanksgiving. And that was before glimpsing at the slate for Thursday, which is… pretty ghastly, to say the least.

The Houston Texans (3-7) visit the Detroit Lions (4-6) in the 12:30 p.m. ET game on CBS, followed by the Washington football team (3-7) at the Dallas Cowboys (3-7) on Fox at 4:30 p.m. There are possible playoff ramifications here given how bad the NFC East is, so the winner of Dallas/Washington will vault into first place. But beyond that and the size of those two fan bases, this is a miserable two-game schedule with no primetime game to bail it out. On Wednesday, COVID-19 concerns postponed the marquee matchup of the holiday: the Baltimore Ravens (6-4) at the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0).

So unless you’re a diehard fans of the four teams actually taking the field, what’s the real draw to tuning in come turkey day, beyond the annual ritual of the NFL being on in the background?

With many Americans staying home for Thanksgiving, it should also put a spotlight on sports’ growing problem connecting with younger generations — in particular, the digitally-focused Gen Z. More staid leagues like Major League Baseball and the National Football League are currently operating on a clock where they have 18 years or less to hook a fan or they’re never going to be a regular viewer (the NFL’s own CMO, Tim Ellis, has even stated as much). You could argue the NHL’s in the same boat with a less diverse sport that’s shuffled to second-tier status in the last two decades. Even the culturally-aware and technologically-advanced NBA hasn’t been able to avoid a viewership downturn in 2020.

Without a lot of those Gen Z viewers feeling compelled to watch the NFL with relatives since they won’t be at family gatherings this year, one would think ratings are due for a nosedive as younger audiences opt for streaming, social video and gaming entertainment instead while potentially hopping on video chats with friends and family all day. And with only two bad games airing, the distractions luring viewers away from the NFL on the day, it’s easy to see how football quickly becomes an afterthought.

That’s not great news for brands, who’ve benefited from TV ad impressions on par with a full Sunday of games during recent Thanksgivings, according to iSpot.tv. Going back to 2017, here’s what impressions have looked like each year for live NFL games on Thanksgiving:

  • 2017: 4.76 billion
  • 2018: 5.94 billion
  • 2019: 7.11 billion

In a matter of three years, impressions nearly doubled. So the effects of young audience tune-out hasn’t necessarily been on display on prior Thanksgivings. But as noted in the Washington Post above, the pandemic may have sped up audiences trends like that one. The two lesser contests on this year’s schedule could potentially create an impressions dip in the billions.

During last year’s three games, departments stores made up 7.2% of all ad impressions — second among brand industries behind only automakers (7.4%), according to iSpot. Walmart, JCPenney and Target were all among the top 10 brand advertisers by impressions, as was Amazon. Such high impressions figures for these sorts of retailers also wasn’t a new phenomenon during the Thanksgiving NFL games. Department stores made up 7.4% of ad impressions during those games in 2018, and 8.3% in 2017. As an overarching brand, Amazon’s been the one to really grow their presence in that time — going from 21.3 million impressions in 2017, to 67.8 million in 2018 and 120.9 million in 2019, and they’re not even categorized as a department store. “Just” one of the world’s largest retailers that takes an increasingly larger chunk of holiday shopping each year.

The impending Thanksgiving dip may not mean much for the NFL in the long run given the extenuating circumstances, but it’s still something to keep an eye on long-term. As audience behaviors continue to change rapidly, those effects could even start altering some of the biggest days on the TV calendar, like Thanksgiving and others.