Record Turnout for 'Thursday Night Football' Opener

Wild Broncos-Chiefs Duel Caps a Huge Week for the NFL

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Credit: CBS Broadcasting

A late scoring burst and a fumble recovery that was run back for a touchdown with just 27 ticks on the clock helped "Thursday Night Football" deliver record ratings, capping a successful opening week for the National Football League.

Last night's Denver-Kansas City clash drew a 12.9 household rating on CBS and NFL Network, topping the previous high set by the year-ago "TNF" opener (Steelers-Ravens, 12.7). That AFC North grudge match kicked off CBS's first "Thursday Night Football" season; the network plunked down $275 million for the initial eight-game package.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, last night's game averaged a record 21.1 million viewers, edging the 2014 "Thursday Night Football" kickoff game by a hair (20.8 million).

Ratings for the CBS Thursday games that are simulcast on NFL Network are blended, as advertisers buy both telecasts. Not surprisingly, when the numbers are broken out CBS accounted for the lion's share of the 2014 deliveries; the network served up 17.4 million of those year-ago Steelers-Ravens viewers, while NFL Network drew 3.4 million.

Fantasy advertising
As has been the case since the preseason began, two of the most visible brands in last night's game were the rival fantasy sports kingpins and Fan Duel, which together accounted for 13% of the overall "TNF" spot load. (Since Sept. 1, the two sites have combined to lay out a whopping $50 million in national TV spend, per estimates.) Incidentally, anyone who might question the long-term prospects of the upstart category -- viz, are pay-for-play fantsy sports sites merely sanctioned gambling portals, and as such, should their money be welcome in NFL broadcasts? -- should be aware that Patriots owner Bob Kraft's Kraft Group is an investor in DraftKings. As long as one of the NFL's most powerful owners is onboard, those guys aren't going anywhere.

Automakers (Lexus, Mazda, Hyundai) also heavied up on the game, rubbing elbows with tech (iPhone), financial services (American Express) and quick-service restaurants/fast food (Wendy's, McDonald's, Pizza Hut).

The big turnout for last night's game tied a bow on what has been a particularly strong week for the NFL and its broadcast partners. ESPN's "Monday Night Football" doubleheader averaged just under 14 million viewers and an 8.7 household rating, up from the year-ago 12.6 million viewers/7.8 rating. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" delivered a stout 26.8 million viewers and a 15.4 household rating, marking an 11% improvement where it matters most. (Unlike general entertainment programming that lives and dies on performance in particular demographics, guarantees to advertisers who buy high-end sports are pinned to household ratings.)

Lastly, CBS's late-afternoon (4:20 p.m.) national game last Sunday scared up 23.3 million and a 13.5 household rating, and while that was down nine-tenths of a ratings point versus its year-ago broadcast, it's worth noting that CBS faced competition from Fox's late singleheader window in one-third of all national markets.

If CBS's first year as a "TNF" partner was plagued by a series of ratings-withering mismatches and blowouts -- the average margin of victory in its first four games was 31 points -- the results of last night's contest offered a neat reversal of the 2014 trend. After Knile Davis's 8-yard touchdown run gave the Chiefs the lead with 2:27 left in regulation, Peyton Manning and the Broncos fired back with the sort of unerring precision that has been a hallmark of the QB's Hall of Fame career.

A 16-yard Manning toss to Emmanuel Sanders tied the game at 24 with 36 seconds on the clock, whereupon the smart call by Kansas City would've been to eat the ball and play for overtime. Didn't happen. Jamaal Charles coughed up the ball on his own 21-yardline, and Denver ran it in for the score. Game over.

Next week's "TNF" contest features a pair of battered, big-market NFC East rivals, as Washington travels to Met-Life Stadium to take on Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

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