The NFL, at its core, is a regional endeavor, but with great national interest thanks to its appointment viewing nature – a short schedule front-loaded at the start of every week, with two-three games scheduled in primetime, depending on the time of year. While you can find a segment of fans for just about any team in every market, the truth is that very few teams have considerably national fan bases. Even the five teams located in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago metropolitan areas don’t have the outreached popularity that those select few. Yes, you can find Cheeseheads and Terrible Towels everywhere, but even they aren’t as ubiquitous as the Silver and Blue of the Dallas Cowboys.
One can crack plenty of jokes about the label of “America’s Team,” especially since the moniker was appropriately created by a media entity (the iconic NFL Films) in the late 1970s. Yet, it’s not one created from thin air. And with the team’s resurgence last season behind then-rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, it seems that all of the league’s broadcast channels wanted to get a ‘Cowboys bump’ in their declining viewership in 2017.
So with all but two Cowboys games essentially making the national TV schedule, it only makes sense to see how critical the team is to a broadcaster’s overall viewership. This analysis looks at all linear television viewers of regular season games for each of the NFL’s network partners – FOX, NBC, NFL Network, ESPN and CBS. With consideration to all of the ways that ratings have eroded over the last three NFL seasons, including the very popular, but not nationally measured (yet) NFL RedZone, the data shown here reflects how big of a lift Dallas provided to those partners since 2015.
We begin with FOX, the network that has shown “America’s Team” more than any other over the years. After all, from the moment the league acquired broadcast rights, FOX has been the home of the NFC and by proxy, these very ‘Boys. While on a national level, ratings for the multiple regional games cannot be pulled from the regional windows, the network has often featured the team in either a single game window to be seen by the majority of the country or the second half of its doubleheader, it’s ‘America’s Game of the Week.’
[Source: Nielsen Media Research; 2015-17 NFL regular seasons; Live+Same Day. FOX, viewers aged 2+.]
In 2015, the Cowboys were shown to the majority of the country in six regular season broadcasts, with four of those games eclipsing 24 million viewers, and a huge matchup between Dallas and Seattle nabbing nearly 29.4M total viewers. The average Cowboys game had done about 15% better in total viewers than the average game on FOX. Last year, Dallas games outperformed the average FOX telecast by 23% as the team accounted for eight of the network’s 28 regular season windows, with the Thanksgiving battle against Washington garnering over 35 million viewers. So far in 2017, FOX has shown the Cowboys in three of their nine nationally-measured windows, with the least viewed of the three – at slightly above 20 million – being the Week 4 tilt against the Los Angeles Rams. The 23.3 million viewers on average betters the typical FOX game by 28%, and without the ‘Boys, FOX would fare even worse.
Next, there’s NBC, whose obsession with stars and/or the top ten media markets essentially defines its coverage. Whether the team was feasting or floundering, NBC has made a point to grab as many Cowboys games as possible within the league’s structure. Since the Peacock regained NFL rights in 2006, Dallas has been on the network’s Sunday Night Football a league-leading 38 times – 36 regular season and two playoff games – with two more guaranteed appearances in 2017. (The Indianapolis Colts are 2nd with 30 and the New England Patriots are 3rd with 29.) You can include a Kickoff Game broadcast in 2012 and two Thursday Night Football appearances since its simulcast deal with the NFL Network went into effect in 2016.
[Source: Nielsen Media Research; 2015-17 NFL regular seasons; Live+Same Day. NBC, viewers aged 2+.]
The aggregate numbers for these NBC broadcasts are naturally larger than those for the other networks since the Sunday night game is the only one happening in primetime. So at first glance, the drop-off between Cowboys games and non-Cowboys games doesn’t seem as steep. Yet by having multiple Cowboys games along with New England and Green Bay, NBC steels itself against the dramatic falloff between those Cowboys games and just about any AFC South tilt. (Colts/Texans had 13.6 million viewers last year; the least viewed Dallas game – Week 8 against Philadelphia – had 18 million.) Add flex scheduling, which allowed NBC to essentially have first dibs over with contests to move to primetime, and you can have Dallas appear three weeks in a row in late December as they had last winter. As for Thursday, NBC just had six games in the window in 2016, with Dallas @ Minnesota bettering the average TNF action by over three million viewers.
[Source: Nielsen Media Research; 2015-16 NFL regular seasons; Live+Same Day. NFLN, viewers aged 2+.]
Speaking of Thursday nights, the NFL Network may have a smaller footprint than the league’s external broadcast partners, but it is not immune from the effects of ‘America’s Team.’ However, there are some legitimate caveats – it was in 2015 where CBS began simulcasting the Thursday night package of the league’s channel from Week 2 on (previously, the simulcasts didn’t happen until the second half of the season). Though viewers slowly flocked to the over-the-air broadcaster that season, NFLN actually lost viewers versus the average game for its 2016 game between Dallas and Minnesota. (In fairness, NFLN’s record-breaking Thanksgiving game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh gave the channel a bigger lift.)
Just as the shared Thursday night slate, ESPN’s Monday Night Football has arguably the most concrete schedule of the league’s broadcasters because it’s not included in flex scheduling. It means that even if the folks at Bristol wanted to get a Cowboys lift – best believe they do – they’re not allowed. For that, the Cowboys have made just 12 MNF appearances since the game was moved from ABC to ESPN in 2006, one for each season.
[Source: Nielsen Media Research; 2015-17 NFL regular seasons; Live+Same Day. ESPN, viewers aged 2+.]
The difference between having Dak Prescott in primetime and not was staggering for MNF, especially in 2016. Their annual Cowboys game, however, was a huge day-after-Christmas gift for ESPN as they would face off against another playoff-bound team in the Detroit Lions. That game essentially brought in over seven million more viewers against the season average. This season’s Week 3 Dallas/Arizona broadcast didn’t bring in nearly as many fans, but it continued a trend of outperforming the rest of the schedule thus far.
Finally, there’s CBS, the network that is obligated to torture you with the Cleveland Browns and the AFC South. (Yeah, that’ll make anyone angry.) In fact, as the default AFC network to FOX’s NFC-based broadcasts, CBS rarely gets Dallas games, though when it does, it’s typically alternating the team’s Thanksgiving game with FOX as well as through flex scheduling.
[Source: Nielsen Media Research; 2015-16 NFL regular seasons; Live+Same Day. CBS, viewers aged 2+.]
In 2015, the ‘Boys Week 5 game against network fave New England (#4) and its Thanksgiving battle against Carolina (#1) were two of their top four regular season telecasts that season. The 29.3 million viewers on average were almost 11 million better than CBS’ average game, and almost 12 million better if those games weren’t included in the average. Last season wasn’t as profound, but while the network continues to point elsewhere for reasons for ratings decline, the 11% drop could have been larger if they were against other marquee teams, and not Cincinnati and Baltimore.
The team’s play a year ago was a blessing in disguise – fans wanted to see them win or lose, but only as a true contender as they seemed to be until the playoffs came around. With the Ezekiel Elliott suspension being reinstated, Jerry Jones contentiously stirring the pot when it comes to the national anthem protests, and local fans turning out in droves, we’ll find out if these Cowboys still have the juice to boost the NFL’s broadcasting partners through the rest of 2017.