“America’s team” is hot, and so too are ratings for America’s most popular sport.
A return to glory for the Dallas Cowboys and a strong first season for a new Sunday night broadcast package highlighted fall for the National Football League, whose ratings have never been better.
Like a CEO who squeezes every last penny of profit from its company, the NFL continues to find ways to generate the largest possible audience for its product.
In recent years, this has meant moving playoff games to primetime on Saturdays and shifting others to later in the afternoon on Sunday. And this year’s switch of the primetime broadcast package from Monday to Sunday and the cable games from Sunday to Monday has been a win-win.
Net is collecting a massive $4 billion-plus annually from NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN, and each of these packages is showing gains compared with the same windows a year ago.
Through Dec. 4, the 13th week of the season, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was drawing 2% more viewers than ABC’s “Monday Night Football” last year (17.3 million to 16.9 million), while ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” (12.4 million) was up a big 42% over last year’s Sunday package on the cabler (8.8 million).
Fox (16.9 million) and CBS (15.4 million) were also up about 5% with their Sunday afternoon broadcasts.
The league front-loaded the NBC sked with marquee matchups, and then introduced “flex-scheduling” — a ploy that, for the first time, allowed the primetime carrier to beg off an undesirable late-season matchup.
Thus, a stronger finish — and a fourth game featuring the Cowboys still ahead — should help the Peacock show even bigger gains when the regular season wraps Dec. 31.
And the net could have done even better. Its Nov. 12 Chicago Bears-New York Giants game was poised to be a ratings juggernaut, but the matchup lost some luster when the Bears lost for the first time the previous week.
Same thing happened two weeks later when the Indianapolis Colts lost for the first time right before playing the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night.
Highest-rated NBC games have been the Colts-Giants Sept. 10 opener (22.6 million), the Nov. 5 Indy-New England matchup (22 million) and the Dec. 10 game between Dallas and New Orleans (19.9 million).
Latter contest was an example of the flex-sked working as advertised. Rather than stick with the game originally slated for NBC (New England-Miami), the league got a matchup between the first-place Cowboys and Saints, an exciting team deserving of the primetime spotlight. (While the Cowboys were scorched by the Saints, ratings for Dallas games, a high-profile team with controversial players, figure to continue to be high.)
That game came at Fox’s expense, but the net has gotten its share of big matchups, thanks to good seasons by the Cowboys, Giants and Bears.
The Cowboys-Giants game on Dec. 3 (27.6 million) became the most-watched regular-season Sunday contest on any net in 10 years, and the Giants-Philadelphia Eagles game Dec. 17 figured to score big as well.
Highlight for CBS came Nov. 19 when its Indianapolis-Dallas game drew 23.4 million, the most for a regular-season game on the net in two years.
And ESPN’s Dallas-New York Giants matchup on Oct. 23 attracted a record basic-cable audience of 16.03 million.
All of which has Fox and CBS salivating at potentially boffo playoff ratings.
An NFC title game pitting any combo of Dallas, Chicago or New York could be huge for Fox. On the AFC side, Indy or San Diego would probably be the most attractive Super Bowl representative for CBS, which airs the game Feb. 4.