If there is one thing a billion dollars can buy you, it’s window exclusivity.
The NFL has long been in the habit of stacking the Sunday deck to provide an exclusive 4 p.m. ET window for CBS or Fox. This isn’t new. Yet in an effort to give one of the two networks showing the most NFL games each week a ratings boost comparable to what NBC gets on Sunday Night Football, scheduling like we’ve seen in Weeks 2 and 3 have hardly served the fans.
While the “game of the week” model definitely works for the networks, it hasn’t been working for the fans, leading to the question of why the NFL would allow the networks to put 10 games on in the early window in the first place.
This week featured three late blowouts, so bad even the people who work for the NFL had a hard time defending the schedule.
Sorry gang. I just show em. I can't make em exciting. #NFLRedZone
— Scott Hanson (@ScottHanson) September 27, 2015
Even if the 4 p.m. ET games do feature two big-ticket franchises with a long-standing rivalry, and put on a game worthy of the exclusive Sunday afternoon window, the rest of the games — and fans of those teams — feels inadequately underserved.
The Week 3 NFL schedule gave a near-exclusive afternoon window to CBS for the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks in a game that pit one of the league’s storied teams against its most recent powerhouse in one of the rare opportunities for Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to call an all NFC marquee match-up. Only, the game wasn’t all that marquee, exacerbated by the fact that Chicago was starting its back-up quarterback on the road in Seattle.
Truth be told, the only other CBS late game — Buffalo at Miami — should have been a better game on paper coming into the week, but that turned out to be a blowout as well, and was only shown, per 506Sports.com, in AFC east markets in Florida, New York and New England.
The lone Fox regional telecast in the late window was Arizona’s destruction of San Francisco, shown in local markets and pockets of NFL-team markets around the country, clearly paving the way for CBS to boast huge Sunday afternoon ratings like Fox did the week before with the Cowboys and Eagles in its exclusive window.
Having 10 games early and only 3 late is still a business decision by the NFL I simply do not understand. https://t.co/Yq7g3bciMX
— Tom Gower (@ThomasGower) September 27, 2015
Again, this trend isn’t new, but three blowouts in one television window that followed up a 1 p.m. ET slot with 10 games on at once illustrates the NFL’s problem: the league has let the networks dictate the schedule so much it’s hurting fans’ ability to watch the best football games.
Maybe that’s the plan.
The league stacks the 1 p.m. slot with double-digit games so fans are forced to watch league-run NFL Red Zone Channel, while CBS and Fox bank on local markets mostly staying with their home-team games instead of the whip-around, commercial free (other than the thousand DraftKings spots) programming the league offers over-the-top.
10 games early is madness/sensory overload. Thanks for watching Week 3 of the @DIRECTV Red Zone Channel.
— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) September 27, 2015
Of the 10 early-window games in Week 3, six were decided by one score, with another two decided by 11 points or less.
The three late games averaged a margin of victory of 31 points.
Certainly the NFL isn’t coordinated enough to plan which games are close and which are blowouts—that’s a conspiracy theory for another day, perhaps—but safeguarding against a bad game window seems like the more responsible thing for the league, and it’s network partners, to do if serving the fans is in any way their goal.
In Week 2 the entire country had the opportunity to suffer through a close but horribly played NFC East game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. Despite the game being so bad that even Troy Aikman commented on the quality of play during the telecast, Fox boasted record ratings, making the game the most watched Week 2 telecast of the decade. From SportsMediaWatch.com:
The Cowboys’ win ranks as the most-watched NFL telecast in Week 2 of the season since at least 2000. The previous high over that span was 27.0 million for Patriots/Jets on CBS in 2010. It was one of two games to hit a milestone Sunday; NBC’s Seahawks/Packers game was the most-watched primetime Week 2 game since 1991.
Cowboys/Eagles scored the second-highest rating and viewership of the young season, trailing only the Steelers/Patriots Kickoff Game on NBC (16.2, 27.4M). In just two weeks, four NFL telecasts have topped a 15.0 rating and 26.0 million viewers — matching the total from the first six weeks of last season.
So, yes, that’s the reason why exclusive late-window Sunday games happen, so Fox and CBS can pull in the same (or better) ratings than what NBC draws on Sunday nights.
The two regional-only CBS games in Week 2—also available on NFL Red Zone and other premium NFL services—were far better games in terms of quality, which is pretty amazing considering those games featured Jacksonville beating Miami and Oakland beating Baltimore. As with Week 3, the early window in Week 2 featured 10 games spread across the country, including road games for the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and San Diego Chargers.
This week, the Raiders were put in the early time slot as well, while the Bills and Dolphins were in the later window. How putting in-market games on at 10 a.m. local time serves those NFL fans I will never understand.
Add to that the logic as to why the Dallas Cowboys would ever host a noon local time game, and much about the NFL’s scheduling puzzle is, well, puzzling.
In Week 3, Joe Buck and Aikman got another Dallas game, this time against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons, in Dallas, in the early window as to not conflict with the CBS game of the week. Much of the country was given the Cowboys game in that early window, so the NFL can justify that fans around the country were certainly being served in both time slots. It just doesn’t make sense why the league would ever want noon local time starts, especially in a situation where, say, Minnesota hosted the Chargers this weekend. That decision makes absolutely zero sense, but the NFL caters to the exclusivity of the late window so much that situations like this routinely occur.
There are 16 games during each of the first three and the last six weeks of the season, with anywhere from 15 down to 13 games taking place in weeks 4 through 11 based on the number of teams with byes. There are only more than three games in the late afternoon window twice from Week 4 through the end of the regular season. Twice.
Meanwhile, because of television window exclusivity, teams in the Mountain and West time zones are routinely placed in the early television window. Six of Oakland’s eight road games are 1 p.m. ET starts. San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona have seven road games not in prime time this season, with each team playing in the 1 p.m. ET slot five times.
Seattle has just five Sunday afternoon road games this season, but three of those are in the early window. Denver—always a big national draw—has six Sunday afternoon road contests, with just two taking place in the early window.
Some of these games could change with flex scheduling, but it’s unlikely Raiders or Chargers fans are going to get flexed into a better time slot for their fans.
This impacts teams in the central time zone as well, with more and more noon starts to accommodate the exclusive afternoon windows. Well, depending on how big of a draw you are.
Dallas only plays 10 games this season on Sunday afternoon, with six games coming on Thursday or in prime time on Sunday or Monday nights. Of those 10 Sunday games, five are in the early window. Houston, by comparison, has 14 of its 16 games on Sunday afternoon, with every game—seven home and seven away—kicking off in the early window.
JJ Watt isn’t bringing in Dallas ratings, and certainly neither are the Raiders.
Don’t fret, though. If we get a few more weeks where the late-afternoon national telecast is a blowout, or another close but horribly played contest that has even the announcers wishing they were watching another game, be reminded that there’s always more football on the way.
Dude. We were slogging thru just like y'all were. Ugh. https://t.co/zLeBbNeyF7
— Scott Hanson (@ScottHanson) September 28, 2015
Like an exclusive window on Sunday night. Or one on Monday night. Or one on Thursday night. Or another near exclusive window each and every Sunday afternoon until the playoffs, where all the windows are exclusive.
Hey, the league couldn’t have four national games earn record ratings without cramming ten games into the 1 p.m. window to make it happen. So enjoy the whip around. You’ll have plenty of time to catch up on what you missed when the afternoon games disappoint.