Objectively, Thursday night’s preseason matchup between the Browns and the Eagles was a pretty bad game of football.
Cleveland won 5-0, and while a Browns win is typically newsworthy in itself, most of the post-game coverage centered on how badly Philadelphia’s offense looked, with Doug Pederson criticizing Nick Foles in his post-game press conference.
One group not upset about the game: FOX execs, who ended up winning the ratings night thanks to more than 6 million viewers of the contest that, again, finished 5-0, saw no points scored in the second half, and featured two teams combining for just 521 yards of total offense between them. Drew Stanton threw three passes. (And, unsurprisingly, completed just one.)
But people still watched; it was the highest-rated weeknight preseason game in four years, and FOX’s highest-rated preseason game since 2012.
Thursday’s Eagles-Browns NFL preseason game drew a 4.2 rating and 6.52 million viewers on FOX, marking the network’s highest rated and second-most watched preseason game since 2012 (49ers-Broncos: 4.5, 7.1M). A 2016 Cardinals-Texans game had slightly more viewers (6.68M).
Outside of the NFL Hall of Fame Game, the Browns 5-0 win was the most-watched weeknight preseason telecast on any network in four years, since Cleveland-Washington on ESPN four years ago (4.5, 6.90M).
Eagles-Browns ranks as the highest rated game of the preseason, edging the Bears-Ravens NFL Hall of Fame Game on NBC (4.1). This year marks the first time since 2012 that any preseason game has outrated the Hall of Fame Game. Keep in mind the Hall of Fame Game still had a larger audience (6.77M).
So, the obvious question: why? Why in the world would this game in particular do that well relative to other preseason games? There are a few factors in play, and chief among them: it was on Thursday night, on broadcast television, in late August. There’s nothing else happening in the sports world right now (aside from late August baseball), and there wasn’t much else on non-sports television either.
That’s clearly the driving factor. The Eagles are also the defending Super Bowl champion, and therefore probably have some national interest, though it’s tough to quantify, and viewers tuning in for the Eagles were probably very disappointed.
On the Cleveland side, though, is there a chance that Browns fans are just very, very excited about this season? There’s data to back that up, again via Sports Media Watch:
All three Browns games this preseason have posted an increase over the comparable window last year. Only one non-Browns game has increased, Raiders-Rams on NFL Network last Saturday.
That would be an admirable resilience, given their 1-31 performance over the past two seasons, but there are some reasons for optimism, foremost the presence of #1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield, who did see plenty of action on Thursday night after Tyrod Taylor exited with a hand injury. Mayfield went 8-12 for 76 yards and an interception, but Cleveland fans aren’t watching for how Mayfield looks now. They’re hoping for glimpses of the future.
There’s also one other somewhat obvious reason the Browns could be doing well in the ratings: the Hard Knocks effect. Cleveland is this years documentary subject, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that’s raised the profile and interest for games, both within the Cleveland base and nationally.
It’s tough to weigh all of these factors, of course, but it’s fair to assume they all played a part in 6 million people watching a meaningless 5-0 football game on Thursday night.