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Presidential debate ratings predictions and the impact on Monday Night Football

Will the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reach Super Bowl-like ratings? Media industry professionals weigh in with their predictions.

It’s been a rough early season for Monday Night Football’s television ratings and it’s about to get rougher. Two weeks ago the Niners-Rams game (a 28–0 San Francisco win) drew the lowest viewership (10.3 million) for a MNF game since 2008. Last week’s game between the Eagles and Bears was down double digits from Week 2 in 2015. Now comes the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump running smack into Monday’s game between the Saints and Falcons.

“It’s going to be a rough night,” admits Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “The interest in this debate is going to be beyond anything we have ever seen before. We are bracing for a significant impact. Monday will be a tough one.”

Multiple ad buyers told the Wall Street Journal that they are predicting TV viewership in the range of about 10.3 million to 11 million people for the game. I think it might go even lower. The lowest-ever viewership for a Monday Night game is 8.449 million for a Saints/Falcons game in 2007.

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The more interesting thing to consider is the viewership for the debate. (For reference, here's a chart of the viewership for the first 2012 Presidential Debate vs. the first debate in 2008).

Given the intensity of this Election cycle, I think Monday’s night debate will draw 75 million viewers, which would make it the most-watched program of the year after the Super Bowl. As part of a fun parlor game exercise, I collected predictions below from a wide-ranging group of 19 media writers, sports public relations practitioners and sports media executives. Here’s how they see it:

Neil Best, sports media writer, Newsday

“I will go against conventional wisdom and come out on the low side at 69 million—a non-partisan averaging of the candidates' current ages. The 80.6 million record for Reagan-Carter will remain safe, because they had only one debate, and only one week before the election. Why only 69 million? Non-partisan observation: It seems to me that fewer people actually consume fact-based information about the election than many of us in the media assume they do, or should.”

Bonnie Bernstein, Campus Insiders

“Considering Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter garnered 80.6 mil eyeballs back in 1980, Trump vs. Clinton should blow that out of the water. With the broadcast being available everywhere (TV, mobile, social via Facebook/Twitter), I'd bet the debate cracks the 100 million mark. There are few reasons these days, outside of sports events and awards ceremonies like the Oscars and Emmys, for a show to qualify as ‘appointment viewing.’ This is one of them.”

Tim Burke, editor, Deadspin
“70 million; the Trump bonus is balanced out by the fact MNF and WWE Raw are on.”

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Jason Clinkscales, Senior editor and media analyst for The Sports Fan Journal, editor and contributor for Yardbarker

Despite apparent estimates that viewership could reach 100 million, I’d think aggregate viewership ends up at around 72 million, which would be impressive considering how online viewing is even more prevalent than in 2012 when Romney/Obama notched around 67 million. Perhaps I’m guilty of underestimating, but with the least liked candidates in recent memory, it’s hard to imagine that Trump will have enough bluster to hold the viewing audience unless he a stroke of brilliance a la Will Ferrell’s ‘Frank the Tank’ in Old School.”

Anthony Crupi, Television Reporter, Advertising Age.

“I would bet a kidney, although preferably not one of my own, that Monday's debate doesn't pull a Super Bowl number. On the one hand, the favorability ratings for the two candidates makes this a hate-watch event unlike any other, unless scientists can figure out a way for the Yankees and Cowboys to compete against each other on an equal footing and Duke basketball plays Coldplay songs at halftime. On the other hand, there are too many marginalized/disaffected/apathetic young and not-so-young people who won't tune in because their candidate isn't up on the dais, or they've long since ditched TV altogether. Oh, and Monday Night Football will wet its beak as well. Let's say Trump-Clinton I draws 74.7* million viewers on linear TV, shy of the record 80.6 million Carter-Reagan scared up in 1980.

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*Coincidentally, this also will be the median age of the debate audience

Lou D’Ermilio, president, LOUD Communications. D’Ermillo was a senior vice president at Fox Sports, who worked with sports TV ratings for 26 years.

“I put the audience at about 80 million, which would be in the ballpark for the first Reagan-Carter debate in 1980, and 20% higher than the first Obama-Romney debate in ’12.”

Tyler Duffy, writer, The Big Lead.

“Every extended conversation I’ve had the past few months has touched on this election. Even my millennial friends who don’t watch TV will find a way to watch this. I’ll predict a live audience of 85 million, less than the Super Bowl but more than the number of those too lazy to turn the Super Bowl off during the postgame show.”

Chad Finn, media writer, The Boston Globe

“It could be a similar spectacle, but the debate won't approach Super Bowl viewership numbers (111.9 million for Broncos-Panthers most recently). The hunch here is that distaste for how the process has played out so far will keep the numbers below the current optimistic nine-figure projections. But there is little doubt it will be the most-watched debate of all time. I’ll put it at 93 million.”

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Marisa Guthrie, media writer, The Hollywood Reporter.

“98 million on linear TV, easily beating the 80.6 million tune in for the 1980 debate between President Carter and Ronald Reagan. But I think all of the leaking from the Trump campaign and surrogates that he's planning to wing it is another Trump engineered head fake designed to lower expectations. He'll be on his best behavior. So tune in will be highest at the outset, when viewers are eagerly anticipating the reality show Trump.”

Ish Hinson, Sports Media Coordinator, CAA.

“This is the first debate in a Presidential election unlike any before it in our country. It's a live event in an era that covets live events, not to mention one that only happens once every eight years (leading into an election after the reelection of an incumbent president). Both candidates have major star power with their respective parties, supporters, and doubters. The highest-rated debate of all time is the 1980 Reagan Carter debate. These ratings will crush that. Prediction: 100 million”

Peter Kafka, media writer, Re/code.

“90 million? Here's the (not) math behind the guess: Biggest debate ever was 80 million, but that was in 1980—three networks, no cable, no Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat. Monday will break a new record, but it's going to happen in a very, very different era. And unlike the Super Bowl, it's going to have a significant half-life via TV and internet highlights when it's over—and potential viewers know that.

Austin Karp, assistant managing editor, Sports Business Daily.

“70 million viewers. Still have Monday Night Football/other shows siphoning off some viewers, combined with debate stream available on Twitter/Facebook.”

Ben Koo, editor and publisher, Awful Announcing.

Monday Night Football’s ratings will put a bit of a dent into the viewership number but I anticipate the intrigue of Clinton vs. Trump will pull the highest rating for a presidential debate since 1980—with a total viewership of 78 million viewers. I think the rooting interest in this election and curiosity of what will unfold at the first debate has the juice to go over 80 million viewers but MNF will prevent that from happening. It should be noted that the highest rated debate since 1980 was the first debate in 2012 but it was on a Wednesday night. The Falcons vs. Saints isn't the sexiest matchup, but there are still going to be people who will prefer football (or winning their fantasy football matchup) opposed to further rubbernecking this election cycle. If only there was a way to parlay the Saints and Clinton!”

Michael Mulvihill, executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy, Fox Sports.

“My guess is 85 million. I’m a little less bullish on this than I was a few months ago. Audiences for the acceptance speeches at the conventions were actually down and sadly I think there may be some people, especially young people, who are so turned off by both candidates that they’ll skip the debate entirely. That said, I still expect a new debate record and an absolutely riveting night.

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John Ourand, media reporter, Sports Business Daily.
“North of 80 million viewers. Bigger than everything but the Super Bowl.”

The editors of Sports Media Watch.

"This will probably be overly conservative, but I’ll say 76 million for the first debate (nearly 10 million more than in 2012). That would be the second-largest audience for any presidential debate since they resumed in 1976, behind Carter-Reagan in 1980 (80.6M), but well short of the 100 million I've seen suggested."

The editors of

“Many people are saying that the first Trump-Clinton debate will shatter presidential debate ratings records but I’m not sure it’ll even top the 67.2 million for the first presidential debate in 2012, let alone the 80.6 million for the final Carter/Reagan debate in 1980. Are people as interested in Trump en masse as the media is? I’m betting they’re not and that neither candidate is as appealing to younger adults as Obama. Throw in the most-fragmented entertainment environment ever and I say no ratings records. Prediction: 67.2 million.”

Jimmy Traina, writer, Awful Announcing and The Comeback and former staffer.

“My prediction for the debate's total viewership is 67 million. While it's easy to say everyone wants to see what will happen, I think a lot of people have election fatigue and don't believe anything either candidate says, so they'll skip the circus and search for something else on the cable dial.”

LeslieAnne Wade, Managing Partner, Faldo Enterprises and Wade Media. Wade led the CBS Sports PR department for more than a decade.

“I’m expecting Super Bowl numbers—nearing 100 million viewers for the debate. It has all the “must see” elements of a “Special Report,” breaking news, live sports, WWE, and The Apprentice. More importantly, this choice will significantly affect our future, our finance, our safety and our world. This is the most American television presentation of our lives.”