The NFL showdown between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills, which was postponed in the first quarter after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field, was the most-watched “Monday Night Football” telecast in ESPN history, averaging 23.8 million viewers, according to preliminary ratings.
Nielsen said Wednesday that the broadcast had an average of 23,788,000 viewers across ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 from approximately 8:30 pm to 10:09 pm. The massive audience makes it the most-watched “Monday Night Football” broadcast since the NFL moved the series to ESPN in 2006, surpassing the previous record of 21.8 million viewers for a Packers-Vikings game in 2009.
Monday’s high-profile game, however, was suspended when Hamlin collapsed in the first quarter just moments after an open field tackle of Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin had his heartbeat restored on the field and is currently in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital.
During game play, ESPN averaged 21.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. That audience then grew to 23.9 million viewers between 9 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. when ESPN aired news coverage of Hamlin’s collapse.
An ESPN spokesperson told CNN on Wednesday 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.
Following Hamlin’s injury, ESPN quickly cut to a commercial break and continued the broadcast for more than an hour, reporting on Hamlin’s injury as it awaited word from the NFL on if the game would resume.
While ESPN has received praise for its calm and measured reporting that avoided speculation on the cause of Hamlin’s horrifying injury, the network notably chose not to interview medical professionals about what millions of viewers had witnessed.
Veteran “SportsCenter” anchor Scott Van Pelt, who anchored the program following the game, told CNN a decision was made to focus strictly on the facts of what had occurred.
“My personal preference was that I didn’t want to bring in a physician to speculate,” Van Pelt said. “I totally see the other side, where a well-trained eye of a physician might recognize something that might totally make sense. But I just didn’t want to be speculating.”
Before Hamlin’s devastating injury, the game was expected to be among the most-viewed Monday Night Football games in ESPN’s history. The Bills (12-3) faced off against the Bengals (11-4), the defending AFC champions, with both teams hoping to secure the number one seed in the division.
The NFL has not yet announced when the teams will continue the postponed game.