The NFL is breathing something resembling a sigh of relief.
After looking like the sky was falling as ratings bottomed out for much of the first part of the season, the NFL rebounded on television… at least to a limited extent.
According to Bloomberg, total NFL ratings for the 2016 regular season were down 8% compared to last year. While that number still isn’t great, it’s much better than what it could have been and what it was through the first half of the season. Through Week 9, NFL audiences were down 14% versus last year.
The major reason? The success of the Dallas Cowboys. The franchise has proven itself to be “America’s Team” this year, at least when it comes to viewership totals. The Cowboys had five of the six most-watched games of the season, including their Thanksgiving clash with the Redskins, which turned out to be the most-watched regular season game since 1995.
Through week 16, five of the six most-popular games featured “America’s Team” and its rookie stars, rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott, according to ESPN. In the second half of the season, the Cowboys averaged 23.7 million viewers — more than last year’s World Series (23.4 million) and NBA Finals (20.2 million), according to data from Fox, which carried Dallas games the most. Late-season games showed double-digit gains.
“There’s not another brand in American sports that delivers that kind of impact,” said Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of research. The Cowboys “have always been the most popular team. Now we have a resurgence, and that’s great.”
It was looking much worse for the NFL this fall. Through week nine, the league’s TV audience was down 14 percent and the networks were forced to give away free commercial time to make up for one of the worst declines in a decade. Once the election was over, fans returned to popular teams with compelling records, including Dallas, Green Bay, Seattle and New England. For the 2016 regular season, NFL viewing finished down 8 percent.
The NFL told the world that ratings would bounce back after the election, and they did a little bit, but one wonders if that’s more due to the Cowboys brand or the fact that fans were really checking out during election season. Were it not for the Cowboys and their run to the top of the NFC, the league could have seen at least another couple of percentage points of a drop across the board.
The NFL can thank the Cowboys for alleviating the league from a real “sky is falling” mentality when it came to television ratings this year. But the league still does have some major issues to examine when it comes to their television presentation and viewership. Perhaps the most discouraging stat for the NFL is how two of its major primetime properties saw ratings decline.
Sunday Night Football remained the #1 show in primetime for the season, but it saw its ratings go down almost 10% from 22.5 million viewers on average to 20.3 million viewers. Monday Night Football lost 12% in viewership from 12.9 million to 11.4 million. In fact, this season was the least-watched Monday Night Football campaign since the second year of the ESPN package in 2007 and the lowest rated at 6.8. The most watched MNF game of the season? You guessed it, Cowboys-Lions in Week 16, that drew 18.6 million. It was the most watched Monday Night Football game since 2014, a contest which also featured the Cowboys.
The NFL is reportedly looking at ways to bounce back in the ratings next season because they can’t guarantee the Cowboys will be able to put the shield on their back forever. Unless of course Roger Goodell just decides to sell all 16 Cowboys games to the highest bidder as their own national television package. Never say never.