If the ratings for the latest installment of Sunday Night Football are anything to go by, an inactive Dak Prescott and increased interest in the World Series seem to have stripped the Dallas Cowboys of their usual primetime glamour.
Despite clinching Sunday night’s game against the Vikings with a touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with just 51 ticks left on the clock, Dallas backup QB Cooper Rush in his first NFL start didn’t command Cowboys-size TV numbers. According to Nielsen, the 20-16 squeaker in Minneapolis averaged a season-low 15.7 million viewers and an 8.7 household rating on NBC, which marked a 7% decline versus the year-ago Cowboys-Eagles SNF broadcast (16.9 million).
The last time Dallas put up a lower rating in regularly scheduled, nationally televised NFL broadcast window was on Nov. 30, 2017, when NBC’s portion of the shared Thursday night Redskins-Cowboys game averaged 12.5 million viewers. (When NFL Network’s simulcast is factored in with the NBC broadcast deliveries, the combined number fell short of Sunday night’s game by 82,000 viewers.)
Prescott, who suffered an injury to his right calf in the final play of the Oct. 17 game against the Patriots, was a late scratch Sunday. Fans who may have elected to sit out the Cowboys-Vikings game once it became apparent that a fifth-year backup would be under center for Dallas missed an impressive outing from Rush, who completed 24 of 40 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns.
With the win, Dallas improved to 6-1 on the season and maintains an iron grip on the NFC East. The NFL’s second most-watched team—Tom Brady and the Bucs currently hold top honors by a 450,000-viewer margin—will make its next national TV appearance on Nov. 21, when it visits Kansas City in Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” window.
Despite Sunday’s ratings drop, NBC’s NFL deliveries remain stellar. Season-to-date, the network’s primetime package is averaging 19.4 million viewers, up 17% compared to the year-ago 16.6 million. By comparison, the average broadcast series is currently eking out just 4.35 million viewers in prime.
That Rush so ably managed to step in for Prescott is a testament to his cool-headedness and the well-oiled mechanism that is the Cowboys’ offense. But the Central Michigan alum wasn’t the only backup to prove his mettle on Sunday; in New York, four-year reservist Mike White earlier in the day threw for 405 yards while leading the Jets to a 34-31 victory over the Bengals. White became only the second QB to pass for more than 400 yards in his first NFL start, joining Cam Newton (422 yards, 2011) on this rather exclusive list.
Few beyond the home markets had a chance to bear witness to White’s performance, as CBS’ distribution of the early game was limited to the New York area, Long Island and Northern New Jersey, as well as Cincinnati and the Lexington, Ky., area. The 1 p.m. ET window, which featured Pittsburgh and Cleveland in 46% of CBS markets and New England and the Chargers with 26% coverage, averaged 17.8 million viewers.
Prescott is slated to start this week’s game against Denver, which is particularly good news for Fox, as it will air that interconference matchup as part of its Sunday doubleheader. Fox also has Dallas hosting Atlanta in the early window on the following week, before the Cowboys jump back into the national spotlight in that aforementioned Chiefs game.
Speaking of Fox, the network had itself a billion-dollar weekend, as it played host to three of the biggest sports broadcasts on the calendar. On Saturday, the noon Michigan-Michigan State scrap scared up 9.29 million viewers, making it the most-watched college football game of the season thus far, while the Halloween NFL window averaged 21.3 million viewers. While the Tampa-New Orleans nail-biter was down 7% versus the analogous New Orleans-Chicago production in 2020, the game now stands as Fox’s third most-watched NFL broadcast since the season began. The network notched No. 4 just three nights prior to its big Sunday game, as a shootout between the Packers and Cardinals averaged 20.3 million viewers, making it the third highest-rated Thursday Night Football offering since Fox picked up the package in 2018.
As much as Fox could bask in the reflected glory of its football deliveries, the network also found reason to celebrate care of Major League Baseball. After a slow start to the World Series, the Astros and Braves on Halloween night averaged 13.6 million viewers and a 7.4 rating. Game 5 marked a 19% lift compared to the fifth frame of the 2019 Nationals-Astros Series, which averaged 11.4 million viewers up against NBC’s Packers-Chiefs broadcast (18.3 million).
While there’s no telling how NBC would have fared on Sunday night were Prescott to have suited up, the fact that a fair amount of casual football fans seem to have switched over to the World Series is particularly interesting in light of the relative slog that awaited them over on Fox. Game 4 ate up exactly four hours of the final night in October, making it the second-longest Fall Classic game of 2021 behind Game 1 (4 hours, 6 minutes). The Braves plated their last run of the game in the bottom of the third, and the Astros effectively made things academic in their half of the fifth. After that, the usual welter of pitching changes and protracted stare-downs with the catcher’s mitt.
Through the first five games, the average game time for the World Series clocked in at 3 hours and 41 minutes, or just a hair under the running time of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia and 11 minutes longer than Martin Scorsese’s 2019 crime epic The Irishman. By comparison, the average game time during the regular season was 3 hours and 10 minutes, and while that’s an all-time high for the first 162 games, the half-hour difference between World Series baseball and what gets dished out during the rest of the year isn’t doing Fox or MLB any favors.