Football will be on TV this Monday evening, but the NFL won’t be the main draw.
The Monday-night matchup millions of Americans have been waiting months for is the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which takes place Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in New York. Considering the massive ratings networks saw during the presidential primary debates and the intense media buzz around this year’s wild election, some experts are predicting that Monday’s event could pull in more than 100 million total viewers.
That would easily make it the most-watched presidential debate in history, and it could even rival the ratings of what is usually the year’s biggest TV event: the Super Bowl.
Trump helped boost ratings to record levels during the primary debates. In August, Fox News drew an all-time record 24 million viewers to its GOP primary debate, while several other networks set debate ratings records throughout the primary season. Considering that the fervor around the primaries followed the two remaining major-party presidential candidates through the summer, it’s no surprise ratings expectations are high for the first of three scheduled, 90-minute debates.
Bloomberg noted over the summer that the first Clinton-Trump face-off has potential to smash viewership records for any live televised event (the 2015 Super Bowl’s average of over 114 million viewers currently holds the title). At the very least, it seems like a good bet to top the previous ratings record for presidential debates, set in 1980, when 80.2 million people tuned in to watch the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Four years ago, President Obama and Mitt Romney scored the highest ratings since the Reagan-Carter debate, pulling in more than 67 million for their first debate. (Nielsen even reported that the first Obama-Romney meeting actually topped the 1980 debate in terms of the number of households tuning in, as opposed to overall viewers.)
If Monday’s debate does, in fact, top 100 million viewers, that would represent a roughly 50% spike over the top-rated Obama-Romney meeting in 2012.
As usual, the debate will air across several broadcast and cable networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, C-SPAN, and all major cable news channels—and there will also be several live streaming options, including on YouTube, BuzzFeed, Twitter and a joint stream from ABC News and Facebook.
On one side of the podium on Monday night will be Trump, the real estate mogul and former reality TV host with a propensity for hurling insults and enflaming rhetoric at his opponents. The GOP nominee has repeatedly asserted his belief that the debate, and the entire election process, is “rigged” in favor of Clinton, whom he refers to as “Crooked Hillary.” Trump has also further riled up his supporters with claims that he won’t get a fair shake from the first debate’s moderator, NBC News anchor Lester Holt, who Trump alleged is a Democrat. TIME reports that Holt is actually a registered Republican.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has three decades of experience in politics and a long history of high-profile debates, but she also has more than her fair share of detractors. Simply put, she is also one of the most polarizing political figures of her generation and her campaign has eagerly attacked Trump’s alarming rhetoric and lack of experience with a series of national ads.
In other words, people expect fireworks and that should mean huge ratings.
Not only could the first Clinton-Trump debate aspire to Super Bowl-level ratings, but the debate is also expected to cut into the NFL’s ratings for Monday Night Football, which will air a matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons at the same time on ESPN. (For what it’s worth, those two teams have only one win between them this season.)
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that ad buyers are expecting as much as a 20% drop-off in MNF viewership (the broadcast averaged 12.9 million viewers per game last year).
While that ratings dip could hurt ESPN, the networks airing the debate are reportedly having no trouble selling advertising, even though the 90-minute event will be commercial-free. The Journal notes that networks are easily selling out their ad space for immediately before and after the debate, with 30-second spots going for as much as $250,000.