The Dallas Cowboys Will Be Inescapable in 2016, Whether You Like It or Not

Lackluster Team Dominates the NFL's National TV Schedule

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Dallas was the NFL's No. 2 TV draw last season as it compiled a 4-12 record.
Dallas was the NFL's No. 2 TV draw last season as it compiled a 4-12 record. Credit: Scott Clarke / ESPN Images

The team that closed out the NFL season with the worst record in its conference will be featured in more nationally televised games in 2016 than any other franchise, and the league's TV partners couldn't be happier about it.

Love 'em or loathe 'em -- and if one recent poll is anything to go by, many of us still fall in the latter camp -- the Dallas Cowboys remain one of TV's most reliable sources of ratings points, which goes a long way toward justifying the outsized presence the team has on the national broadcast schedule. This season, Jerry Jones' minions will appear in no fewer than 11 coast-to-coast broadcasts, a roster that includes five primetime games and six contests set to air in the late Sunday afternoon window.

Despite amassing a lowly 4-12 record, its worst since 1989, "America's Team" last season still managed to reach a massive TV audience. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Dallas over the course of its 11 national games averaged 24 million viewers and a 13.5 household rating, making it the No. 2 draw behind the Green Bay Packers. During their own 11-game stretch, Aaron Rodgers and Co. delivered 24.4 million viewers and a 13.8 household rating, offering further evidence that (in the NFL, at least) the size of one's home market has no bearing on one's national footprint. (With a reach of just 433,860 TV homes, 68th-ranked Green Bay-Appleton is the NFL's smallest DMA.)

The meeting of the league's two biggest ratings dynamos is obviously good for business, and securing a rare rematch of last year's Cowboys-Packers game was a top priority for Fox. "There really is no such thing as 'calling dibs' on a game you want, but we all do make a wish list," said Mike Mulvihill, senior VP of programming and research, Fox Sports. "Before anything's 100% set in stone, everyone sits down with [NFL schedule gurus] Howard Katz and Mike North, and we submit our list. Green Bay-Dallas was at the top of our list."

$765,000 for 30 seconds
Little wonder. While the Packers made short work of an injury-plagued, inexperienced Cowboys squad, the Dec. 13 game was the second highest-rated broadcast of the regular season, delivering a 16.5 rating in the guaranteed household metric. And while Fox's eight-game late-national package is already the priciest buy on TV -- in last summer's upfront, 30 seconds of airtime in its top-rated "America's Game of the Week" set advertisers back $689,225 a pop -- latecomers who snapped up units in that Dallas-Green Bay showcase invested as much as $765,000 per spot.

All told, Fox will broadcast five Cowboys games in its late window, a schedule that includes the Sept. 11 season opener against NFC East rivals the New York Giants and a Nov. 13 road trip to Western Pennsylvania for a showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Dallas-Pittsburgh was No. 2 on our list," said Mr. Mulvihill, who added that the uncommon meetings between the two franchises that towered over the NFL in the 1970s are always a big get. "It's a timeless matchup, like seeing the Lakers and Celtics on the same court. We literally get one opportunity every eight years to take a Cowboys-Steelers game, so we jumped on it."

Mr. Mulvihill notes that the bulk of the Cowboys appearances on Fox are scheduled during the first two months of the season, which should serve as an insurance policy if Dallas puts together another lousy year of football. "If we get the Cowboys team of two years ago that was within a controversial call of reaching the NFC Championship Game, we have a lot of upside," he said. "And if we get the team that won four games last year, we're still pretty well protected, because they can only be so far out of contention by Week 10."

16 hours of sports
Week 8 promises to provide a red-letter day for Fox, which looks to repeat its $100 million performance of a year ago. Kicking off a 16-hour marathon sports session, a morning London game will lead into Green Bay-Atlanta or Seattle-New Orleans at 1 p.m., which in turn will give way to a 4:25 p.m. NFC Championship rematch between Arizona and Carolina. Fox caps off its lucrative programming day with Game 5 of the 2016 World Series. (That's only if a fifth frame is necessary; then again, given that there have been just three 4-0 World Series sweeps since the century began, the likelihood of baseball on the night before Halloween is rather high.)

While Fox is celebrating what may be its strongest NFL schedule in years -- the only game on Mr. Mulvihill's top five "must have" list that got away is a midseason Seahawks-Patriots battle that went to NBC's "Sunday Night Football" -- the other league partners have plenty to look forward to in the fall. CBS, which boasts the No. 2 NFL package with its Sunday 4:25 p.m. AFC slate, will play host to a veritable murderer's row of big draws; along with Super Bowl 50 champs Denver, which will appear three times in the late window, the network has lined up three late games featuring Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The Pats (13.4) and the Broncos (13.2) delivered the third- and fourth-biggest ratings averaged of the 2015 campaign, and will butt heads again on CBS a week before Christmas.

CBS also has two late Steelers games on tap, including a Sept. 25 Keystone State matchup that sees the NFL's No. 6 TV draw travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, and an Oct. 23 grudge match at home against the Pats. Other promising dates include an Oct. 9 Bengals-Cowboys air battle and, on Nov. 6, a chance for Green Bay to finally avenge its last-second 2012 loss to Andrew Luck and the Colts.

While the late Sunday packages look poised to put up their usual gaudy numbers, the primetime broadcasts are just as compelling. "Sunday Night Football" will offer a smörgåsbord of heated intradivisional pairings (Packers-Vikings, Seahawks-Cardinals, Eagles-Cowboys, Cowboys-Giants, Steelers-Bengals, Broncos-Chiefs) as well as some intriguing AFC-NFC games (Pats-Cardinals, Seahawks-Pats) that have "Playoff Implications" stamped all over them in 17-pt Garamond.

Super Bowl rematch
The "Sunday Night Football" slate is crammed with big TV draws, as each of the six top-rated teams appears three times on the NBC schedule. As usual, the schedule is front-loaded with intriguing matchups, including the Sept. 8 Super Bowl 50 rematch between the Panthers and the new-look Broncos, and what could very well be a Super Bowl LI preview (Pats-Cardinals, Sept. 11). But there's not a dud in the bunch, and if the games are competitive -- last season, the average margin of victory in the first 14 "SNF" games was just 7 points, down from 19.6 points in the blowout-blighted 2014 campaign --NBC is all but guaranteed dominion over the first half of the 2016-17 broadcast season.

ESPN's "Monday Night Football" schedule looks much more robust than that of a year ago, heavy as it is with top NFC talent and its studious avoidance of ratings Kryptonite like the Browns, Jags and Titans. Four of the most notable games on the "MNF" manifest feature NFC East and NFC North matchups; the Oct. 3 Giants-Vikings game should be especially bruising, while a Packers-Eagles meeting on Nov. 28 is likely to bring the NFC playoff picture into greater relief. And the Oct. 24 Texans-Broncos game could prove to be a real soap opera, as Brock Osweiler will look to make Denver GM John Elway rue the day he let the second-year QB go. (Without Peyton Manning under center, Denver's next starting signal caller may be Mark "Buttfumble" Sanchez, who if nothing else, makes futility fun to watch.)

The expanded and revised "Thursday Night Football" schedule may be difficult for some fans to navigate, as CBS broadcasts in Week 2 and Week 3 will give way to an exclusive NFL Network telecast in Week 4. CBS closes out its five-game primetime suite with games on Oct. 6, Oct. 13 and Oct. 20, whereupon the schedule swings back to NFL Network for a four-week run. Once NBC picks up the thread in mid-November, the Peacock will have 24 primetime games to sell, a tally that includes the Thursday night "SNF Kickoff" game and the Thanksgiving night AFC showdown between the Steelers and Colts.

The CBS and NBC "TNF" games will be simulcast on NFL Network and Twitter. The networks will retain the majority of the commercial inventory in and around the games repurposed on the social media platform.

Going back to Cali
Lastly, for all the twists and turns of the new NFL schedule, the revitalization of pro football in Los Angeles won't have an outsized impact on the national TV landscape.

While the NFL's return to the No. 2 DMA after a 21-year drought is a story unto itself, the Rams' lease of the L.A. Coliseum is so freighted with restrictions that the team is effectively prohibited from hosting any primetime games. In its final season in St. Louis, the Rams weren't exactly a primetime powerhouse; one of five teams to appear in a single national window (the league minimum), the Rams' Dec. 17 "Thursday Night Football" clash with the Buccaneers drew just 6 million viewers and a 3.8 household rating, making it the least-watched, lowest-rated NFL telecast of 2015.

Despite rapping the nation's No. 2 DMA, the Rams still aren't ready for primetime, and will appear in just two national windows. As an NFC club, Fox gets the lion's share of the Rams' games (12), including the Sept. 18 home opener against the Seahawks.

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