Picture the television ratings muscle of the NFL team that from 1996 to 2015 won just four more games than it lost, rolled through six head coaches and made eight scattered playoff appearances with three early round wins, just two — TWO! — of those playoff victories since the turn of the century.
A Nielsen ratings disaster? Not if we’re talking Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys, the gold standard of TV ratings in the NFL.
Jones banked early on America’s Team lore and Super Bowl victories in 1992, ’93 and ’95, and now with rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott leading the way to an 11-2 record, this 2016 squad is blowing up the TV ratings at the same time that the league’s commissioner ponders an NFL-wide ratings plunge.
Five of the top six most-watched NFL games this year have involved the Cowboys, according to Sports Media Watch, and NBC Sunday Night Football has been “flexing” Sunday’s schedules to move Dallas into the prime-time slot, including the recent loss to the Giants and Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers.
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The Cowboys are lined up to become the first NFL team to play four consecutive night games, with three in a row on NBC — and that’s no accident. The prime-time run started on NBC Thursday Night Football at Minnesota, which drew 23.5 million viewers, the largest audience in the history of Thursday Night Football dating back to 2006.
Jerry Jones has done a masterful job keeping them relevant regardless of the record.
Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC Sunday Night Football
“One of the things you can always count on is there is always something swirling around them and they are never dull. Like a great made-for-TV drama, you never know where the twists and turns may come, only that you know they will,” said Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football.
“Jerry Jones has done a masterful job keeping them relevant, regardless of the record. Exhilarating wins, crushing defeats, larger than life personalities and everything in between. America never grows tired.”
Last Sunday night’s game against the division rival New York Giants attracted 26.5 million viewers, according to NBC Sports, making it the most-watched Week 14 prime-time game in 27 years.
Dallas’ Thanksgiving Day matchup against Washington drew a whopping 35.1 million viewers, the most-watched regular-season game in FOX Sports history, and the most-watched regular-season game since Dallas and Kansas City drew 35.7 million on Thanksgiving Day in 1995.
Week 10’s game at Pittsburgh drew a 17.8 overnight rating, which was the highest overnight of the season, topping the Week 6 Cowboys game against the Packers. The Week 11 game at winless Cleveland, a noon kickoff, easily rated the highest for the early doubleheader window this season.
The Cowboys have played in the most-watched game in seven of this season’s first 14 weeks (which includes a bye week). Five times they played in the second most-watched game and once in the third-most watched game.
And in this year of declining league ratings, Cowboys games twice measured as the only game of that week in any time slot to attract more viewers than the same week the previous season.
“Like the Yankees in baseball, people love to hate them as much they love to love them,” Gaudelli said. “When you look at the success of Sunday Night Football on NBC, look at how many appearances the Dallas Cowboys have made in the history of the series.”
‘You’re raising Cowboys fans’
Sunday night will mark the Cowboys’ NFL-high 38th appearance on NBC Sunday Night Football.
Yet for the better part of 20 years, the on-field product had mostly drifted into mediocrity with pockets of Tony Romo-fueled ascension that typically ended in spectacular gut-punch failure. Still, between Jones’ masterful Barnum-esque persona and the Cowboys being just good enough often enough, fans have continued to hop on Jerry’s party bus.
“It’s amazing how many Cowboys fans are here in this southwest corner of Kentucky,” said Dan Wann, a sports psychologist at Murray State whose research program centers on the psychology of sport fandom, and in particular the causes and consequences of sport team identification.
“My fiance is a Cowboys fan and she never lived in Dallas. She grew up north of Dayton and went to Ohio State, but she was a Cowboys fan before Ezekiel Elliott got there.
“America’s Team continues to pay off. If you were a fan of America’s Team 20 years ago and have kids, you’re raising Cowboys fans.”
Think about this: Since the Cowboys last appeared in the Super Bowl in 1995, the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots have combined to win eight Super Bowls, and three in just the last seven seasons with the Patriots winning it all last year. All boast strong national fan bases, yet in 2015, the 4-12 Cowboys played in the three most-watched games of the regular season.
Jones gives due credit to the innovative Tex Schramm for creating the Cowboys’ lasting aura. He said he has enhanced the brand, even through lean years, with a Midas marketing touch.
“He understood that,” Jones said of Schramm’s ability to promote the franchise through the written media and the early days of the NFL on television. “However, there’s another very important way … and that is through marketing and interest in the team from its affinity relative to products or services. Well, we have certainly enhanced that activity and thereby increased the interest and increased the fans.”
An old TV executive at CBS once said, ‘When in doubt … give ’em the Cowboys.’
Newy Scruggs, sports director at NBC5
The proof is in the ratings: In 2005, coming off a 6-10 season and 31-49 record in the previous five seasons, the Cowboys still played in three of the top 10 most-watched games that season.
In 2008, coming off 2007’s disappointing Cabo adventure, a 9-7 Cowboys team played in the most-watched show of the broadcast season (25.7 million viewers), the most-watched Sunday Night Football game ever to that point (23.1 million viewers) and the most-watched show in cable history to that point (18.6 million viewers).
And in 2013, the third consecutive 8-8 season with the last winning season four seasons removed, Cowboys games still accounted for eight of the 50 most-watched sporting events that year.
‘Give ’em the Cowboys’
“An old TV executive at CBS once said, ‘When in doubt … give ’em the Cowboys,’” said Newy Scruggs, sports director at NBC5 and host of The Newy Scruggs Show, a national talk radio show on NBC Sports Radio.
“Jerry Jones has done an excellent job of having players and coaches that people/fans always had opinions on,” he said. “I think it also helps so many former Cowboys are on national TV today as broadcasters.”
Perhaps former Cowboys who became broadcasters and analysts such as Troy Aikman and Daryl Johnston on FOX, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders on NFL Network, and Darren Woodson on ESPN have aided in bridging the last generation to one in which many were born and graduated college since the Cowboys last played in an NFC championship game.
And now, 21 years since Jones snatched the Lombardi Trophy from Barry Switzer’s grasp, the fervor for the stunningly rejuvenated Cowboys might be greater than ever.
“We’ve got a great story, and I’m proud that it’s resulting in the ratings that we’re getting,” Jones said.
Since Week 6’s eyebrow-raising win at Green Bay that was shown in 86 percent of markets and drew 28 million viewers to make it the most-watched NFL window of the season to that point, Cowboys games have been setting one kind of ratings mark or another nearly each week.
“It’s not like they’ve been the Browns all these years, but they’ve been close enough [to success] probably to keep fans interested,” Wann said. “Now they’re winning, they’ve got young players that people identify with, so it’s a good story there.
“Even if you’re not a big Cowboys fan, the two rookies, it’s good TV. I think it’s almost the perfect storm where you’ve got the large footprint, the large fan base and a season, one for the ages, so far.”
Charean Williams and Drew Davison contributed to this report.
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan
Top 10 NFL games on TV
The most-watched games in the NFL this season, according to the Nielsen ratings:
Redskins at Cowboys, Nov. 24, 35.1 million viewers (14.5 rating)
Cowboys at Steelers, Nov. 13, 28.9 million (16.4 rating)
Cowboys at Packers, Oct. 16, 28 million (15.8 rating)
Vikings at Lions, Nov. 24, 27.6 million (13.0 rating)
Giants at Cowboys, Sept. 11, 27.5 million (15.5 rating)
Cowboys at Giants, Dec. 11, 26.7 million (16.5 rating)
Giants at Steelers, Dec. 4, 25.4 million (14.6 rating)
Seahawks at Packers, Dec. 11, 25.3 million (14.4 rating)
Panthers at Broncos, Sept. 11, 25.2 million (14.6 rating)
Eagles at Seahawks, Nov. 20, 24.4 million (13.6 rating)
Source: Sports Media Watch