There is no dancing in the end zone yet, but the NFL is seeing a post-election day bump in its TV ratings.
The total Nielsen overnight ratings for NFL telecasts in Week 11 of the season were up 3% compared with last year, the first time in the 2016 season that viewing has increased. The rise follows the improved viewing in Week 10, in which the decline the NFL had been seeing this fall had been cut significantly.
Through the first nine weeks, ratings had shown double-digit declines when compared with the 2015 season. The most pronounced drops were in the network prime-time games on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. Analysts have cited many explanations, including boring matchups and cord cutting by consumers.
Then there was the election. The league and network executives believed unprecedented interest in the tumultuous presidential campaign was pulling viewers away and were hopeful of a bounce back when it concluded.
“It’s a little premature to take a victory lap or say whatever problems we were examining a month ago have gone away, but there are some encouraging numbers out there,” said Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president for research, league operations and strategy for Fox Sports.
It’s a little premature to take a victory lap or say whatever problems we were examining a month ago have gone away, but there are some encouraging numbers.
In the two telecasts since election day, NBC’s “NFL Sunday Night Football” has seen its ratings improve compared with last year. Sunday’s Washington Redskins victory Green Bay Packers scored 18.7 million viewers, up 4% over last year’s Week 11 game. The nail-biting win by the Seattle Seahawks over the New England Patriots on Nov. 13 was 13% better than last year’s Week 10 game.
CBS had its best Sunday afternoon of NFL games this past weekend. Thanks to the regional contests that included the resurgent Dallas Cowboys, the network averaged a 10.2 household rating, up 20% from Week 11 in 2015.
The NFL is also seeing a boost from the additional “Thursday Night Football” games on NBC’s broadcast network. Last year, the Thursday games in the second half of the season were shown exclusively on cable’s NFL Network.
Aside from resolution of the 2016 race for the White House, the NFL is likely being helped by the on-field narratives that have developed in recent weeks. The season began without some of its biggest names, such as the retired Peyton Manning. But casual fans are starting to recognize a new generation of stars such as Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott and the Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr, who is guiding his team to its first playoff run since 2003.
The Cowboys have emerged as a ratings powerhouse once again thanks to rookie Prescott’s ability to step in for the injured Tony Romo. The Cowboys gave Fox — the only network that hasn’t seen a significant decline in its NFL ratings this year — the most watched NFL game of the season as 28.9 million viewers tuned in for the team’s wild 35-30 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 13.
Having “America’s Team” become a Super Bowl contender can be a major driver for ratings for the rest of the season. The Cowboys have two prime-time games coming up on NBC and a Monday night contest on ESPN.
“The good news for the league is that the Cowboy wealth is going to be spread on every network,”” said Mulvihill. “The great news for us is we’ll be the home of their playoff run. We will share the wealth in the regular season but we’ll own that story in January and February.”
Fox will air Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, 2017.