Football has routinely crushed baseball for years when it comes to ratings, even if it’s an important postseason game in the MLB pitted against an inconsequential regular season game in the NFL. So it opened eyes when Game 5 of the World Series crushed Sunday Night Football in viewership.
According to Austin Karp of SportsBusiness Daily, the 3-2 win for the Chicago Cubs over the Cleveland Indians drew a 15.3 rating, easily beating the 11.6 rating for the Dallas Cowboys’ overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even for the World Series that’s noteworthy, as the last time a game from the Fall Classic outdrew a competing NFL game was 2013. And the blowout for the MLB came against the Cowboys, a gigantic draw playing against a divisional rival in a game between two exciting young teams with rookie quarterbacks.
It’s part of a larger downward trend for the NFL, which has experienced declining ratings all season for reasons that everyone has their own opinion about.
But Sunday was actually a good day for the NFL. It was one of the better weeks of action and CBS said its slate of regional games during the day did 8 percent better than its coverage of Week 8 in 2015.
Before you take out your bugle and start playing “Taps” as a farewell to the NFL, take a deep breath. There are a few reasons why the World Series would get better ratings than the Cowboys and Eagles.
Nielsen ratings are weird
The ratings that have become standard for determining what is and isn’t being watched by an American audience may not be the most accurate determination. It’s a box that goes in about 20,000 homes for about 50,000 viewers who supposedly represent an accurate reflection of the viewing habits of the United States, as a whole.
Even if it is a good representation of American viewers, Nielsen has had difficulty measuring viewership during the streaming era, with services like Netflix or even DVR possibly skewing data.
Ratings drops aren’t exclusive to football
Many are focusing on the decline of football ratings, but the English Premier League has seen a significant drop too. Did everyone in America just get sick of sports all at the same time? Unlikely.
But viewers have had the tendency to come and go depending on how exciting things are in the sport. Some experts also believe fans might be watching less because of the presidential election. The 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore had a similar effect on football ratings.
Streaming has pulled viewers away from TV sets
Television ratings might be down, but streaming services couldn’t be more elated with the way Americans are watching football. Just ask Sling TV, a live streaming service that negotiated the rights to show some NFL games.
“Our Monday Night Football viewership numbers are breaking all our own records, increasing week over week. I think there is so much pent up demand for streaming live sports, and people want an alternative to pay television,” Sling TV chief product officer Ben Weinberger told ExStreamist.com.
If NFL fans are increasingly turning to services like Sling TV and even Twitter to watch games, it will keep pulling down ratings.
RedZone is sucking the life out of football games
For years, more and more fans have turned to NFL RedZone to watch football on Sundays. Instead of watching one game — complete with several commercial breaks, stoppages of plays, replay reviews, injury timeouts, and other boring things that turn away viewers — fans instead get zipped around several games for whatever is the most exciting thing happening.
Then the primetime game rolls around and fans are dropped back into the trudge of a three-hour game. CBS CEO Les Moonves talked at Goldman Sachs’ Communacopia conference about how the channel is undermining their coverage by cutting through commercials.
The NFL keeps putting bad games on national TV
One day after the World Series smoked Sunday Night Football, the NFL doesn’t have to worry about its Monday Night Football game competing with baseball. But it should take note of the fact that it’s the fourth time the 1-6 Chicago Bears are in primetime in the first eight weeks.
The Cowboys and Eagles are exciting, but the NFL has sandwiched its good matchups in with games like the Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans, and suffered the consequences.
There was a whole lot of sports on
In addition to the World Series, there were 11 NFL games, seven NBA games, and eight NHL games. It’s only the 16th time that all four major American professional sports leagues had games on the schedule on the same day and only the sixth time since 1985.
There are plenty of fans who only watch one, but there are much more who enjoy multiple sports and juggle them based on importance and significance. An elimination game in the World Series can win over fans who care about both baseball and football, and hockey and basketball can pull away more fans who would’ve otherwise tuned in for Sunday Night Football.
It was a really big baseball game
The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. The Cubs haven’t even been to a World Series since 1945 and haven’t won since 1908. It’s a historically significant series and people really care about seeing how things turn out for the Cubs.
It’s not an entirely unique phenomenon. The 2014 World Series was crushed by the NFL, except for Game 7 which averaged 23.9 million viewers.
Heading into Sunday’s Game 5, Cleveland had a 3-1 lead and a chance to end it all. The game was close throughout, with neither team jumping out to anything more than a two-run lead. In the final innings the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball, Aroldis Chapman, was tasked with finishing the game, keeping fans on the edge of their seats until the final out.
For many sports fans, that was a level of drama that the NFL couldn’t compete with, regardless of the bubbling Dak Prescott vs. Tony Romo storyline. The Cowboys and Eagles also got out to a slow and somewhat boring start before Dallas finally staged an exciting comeback to force overtime.
* * *
There are many reasons why the NFL’s ratings have dropped, but it’s still far too early to sound the death knell for the league. The NFL is well aware and has been analyzing why fans seem less engaged in 2016.
But it’s still doing just fine and even poor ratings for a game competing with the World Series aren’t a bad thing at all, considering the circumstances.