Anyone who’s at all vested in the NFL’s ratings performance this season may want to keep their eyes trained on the scoreboard. Unfettered by crowd noise and amid a notable decline in offense-squelching penalty calls, the touchdowns have been piling up at a torrid pace; in Week 5 alone, the combined score per game climbed to a vertiginous 51.5 points, up 11% compared to the year-ago 46.4.
As much as fans of defense-oriented football and the “three yards and a cloud of dust” ground game may be averse to the NFL’s hyper-accelerated scoring trend—the increase in offensive production may be just the thing to help draw in more casual viewers. The last time the league went all-in on a scoregasm mindset, just two short years ago, the ratings began to climb out of a two-year hole. If nothing else, the bombs-away mindset has been a boon to nation’s 40 million+ fantasy football enthusiasts, who are raking up hundreds of points each week in their virtual games, and, more often than not, anyone who’s been betting the over.
Although it’s still too early in the fall campaign to draw any overarching conclusions as to how the profligate scoring will impact the TV ratings for the entire season, most of the available data from the last several years suggests that viewers will stick with a high-output game as long as both sides are putting up big numbers. Such was the case on Sunday afternoon, as the 1-3 Cowboys hosted the 0-4 Giants; together, the NFC East rivals went on a 71-point spree. Audience levels remained consistent throughout the broadcast—CBS over the course of the game averaged a season-high 22.9 million viewers—and the fans who stayed with the game saw Dallas secure a victory on a 34-yard field goal that split the uprights as time expired.
If the act of lighting up the scoreboard can be said to promote a similar surge of energy in the Nielsen boxes, such a boost couldn’t happen at a more opportune time for the NFL. Through Monday night’s Chargers-Saints game, the league’s national and regional TV windows are averaging 14.5 million viewers, down 10% from 16.2 million in the year-ago period. While that’s a mere dip when compared to the losses sustained by the rest of the sports TV space, and a pittance in light of the 28% drop in overall deliveries since the fall broadcast season began, the NFL’s network partners would just as soon try to mitigate those early declines before they scare off any in-game advertisers.
At the risk of assigning any sort of causality, it would appear that a reduction in drive-stifling offensive holding calls may be playing a part in the recent scoring spike. Season-to-date, officials have called out 135 holding violations, for an average of 4.22 calls per team. That’s less than half the 274 offensive holding calls that were dished out at this time a year ago, when the average number of calls levied against each team worked out to be 8.56.
Thanks to the radical reduction in tossed laundry, 1,314 fewer yards of offense have been wiped off the slate. And whether this is all part of a directive designed to help further the cause of scoring, the results seem fairly self-evident; when the threat of a 10-yard trip toward his own end zone is largely taken away, a quarterback has that much more wherewithal to find a receiver downfield. And even if the QB doesn’t thread the needle, the odds of moving the chains remain higher than ever, now that even the most incidental contact in the secondary is likely to result in a yard-gobbling defensive pass interference penalty.
Of course, all the built-in offensive advantages in the world won’t help rack up the points if the skill players are out of commission. Which brings us back to Dallas. The NFL’s top TV draw may have managed to outlast a woeful Giants squad, but in so doing the Cowboys lost their most valuable asset for the remainder of the season. Quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, a gruesome injury that required surgical repair.
Dallas currently has eight more national TV windows remaining on its regular-season schedule, a slate of high-impact appearances that includes four primetime games. For the networks that are doing everything they can to keep skittish advertisers from spitting the bit in the midst of a season of high-dollar uncertainty, the potential upheaval of the NFL’s best-selling property may prove to be as painful as a busted ankle.