ESPN had a difficult job carrying on with a Monday Night Football broadcast that had less to do with football and more about the well-being of Damar Hamlin, who collapsed in the middle of the first quarter from a cardiac arrest. The network was praised for its coverage and as more people tuned in awaiting updates, the Buffalo Bills–Cincinnati Bengals game became the most watched MNF game since ESPN took over in 2006.
According to preliminary Nielsen ratings, the broadcast averaged 23,788,000 viewers from kickoff to 10:09, when the game was officially postponed and the broadcast shifted to Scott Van Pelt in Bristol. That beat the previous record, a Green Bay Packers–Minnesota Vikings game in 2009 with 21.8 million viewers. CNN noted that while the two teams were playing, ESPN averaged 21.1 million viewers, and viewership grew to 23.9 million when the network shifted to news coverage.
It’s usually great for a network when they break a viewership record but not like this, and it wouldn’t be surprising if ESPN chooses not to celebrate this. CNN reported that an ESPN spokesperson told them that “given the special circumstances around Monday’s game, it was not clear whether the viewership numbers would be factored into the season average or used for historical purposes.”
As Hamlin was being treated on the field, and after he was transported by ambulance to a hospital, Monday Night Football shifted to news. And when there wasn’t any news to share, the on-air MNF crew mainly sympathized with Hamlin, his family, his teammates, and anyone watching on ABC or ESPN. Whether people tuned in to be informed or to be consoled, ESPN’s MNF crew did their job, and here’s hoping they don’t have to do that again.