It was a great weekend of football for the NFL, with three out of four playoff games coming down to the wire. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to stop the steady decline of television ratings the league has been struggling with for the past two seasons.
According to SportsBusiness Daily's Austin Karp, last weekend was the lowest-rated divisional playoff slate the NFL has had since 2009. That follows a wild-card weekend that saw its lowest ratings since 2008. And it all comes on top of a 7-percent decline in ratings across the league during the regular season.
The nail-biting Saints-Vikings game is a great example of the problem the NFL is facing. Thanks mostly to its amazing finish (dubbed the "Minneapolis Miracle" by Vikings announcer Paul Allen), the game peaked at about 46 million viewers. However, the game drew a 21.8 overnight rating, which is down 23 percent from last year's late Sunday afternoon divisional game between the Packers and Cowboys, and down 17 percent from the Steelers-Broncos game in 2016.
Despite having the largest television market remaining in the playoffs, NBC's Eagles-Falcons game drew a 17.4 rating, which was down 5 percent from Seahawks-Falcons last year and 12 percent from Chiefs-Patriots in 2015. Without the potential draw of star quarterback Carson Wentz, the game was the second-lowest-rated early Saturday divisional game since 2001, according to Sports Media Watch.
Here are all the overnight ratings for last weekend, and how they compare to the previous season:
Eagles-Falcons (NBC, 4:35 p.m.): 17.4 overnight (down 12 percent)
Titans-Patriots (CBS, 8:15 p.m.): 16.6 overnight (down 9 percent)
Jaguars-Steelers (CBS, 1 p.m.): 20.4 overnight (down 7 percent)
Saints-Vikings (FOX, 4:40 p.m.): 21.1 overnight (down 23 percent)
As we look ahead, there is some reason for the NFL to hope the NFC championship game between the Vikings and the Eagles could offer a meaningful bump. First, there is a lot of buzz about the Vikings thanks to their walk-off win over the Saints, the first in the history of the NFL playoffs. Second, not only does Philadelphia remain the No. 4 television market in the country, last week's Saints-Vikings game pulled in an impressive 55.5 rating and 82 share in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. That bodes well for the NFL heading into Sunday's NFC Championship game.
The Eagles have been a reliable television draw all season, thanks largely to the play of Wentz, who emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. Unfortunately, the Eagles won't have Wentz — they have Nick Foles. Foles and Case Keenum represent a pair of unknowns who don't exactly rise to the marquee of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and other quarterbacks forced to watch the rest of the playoffs from home.
Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch calculated that the floor in terms of ratings for the NFL championship games is a combined average audience of 44 million viewers, which poses something of a litmus test for the league. "If the combined viewership is below that, it will tell you how deep the viewership issues are," Deitsch wrote. "If it's above that, we can continue a longer ratings conversation."
Maybe the Raiders know something the rest of us don't.
After Vikings quarterback Case Keenum's last-second heroics in sealing the team's unlikely victory over the Saints, a five-year-old video began circulating on social media featuring his talk with then-ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden.
As part of Gruden's ongoing Gruden's QB Camp series on ESPN, the analyst regularly sat with the quarterback prospects ahead of the draft. Despite his success at Houston, the undersized Keenum was projected as a late-round draft pick, and ultimately not selected at all in the 2012 NFL Draft (he was signed as a free agent by the Houston Texans). But that didn't stop Gruden from seeing signs in the young quarterback that turned out to be oddly prescient.
"Does the draft really matter? At the end of the day, at the end of your career, at the end of time, does it really matter?" Gruden said. "All it takes is one coach that believes in you… just be ready, just be ready, just be ready, because you will get your chance… You're gonna be alright, Keenum. You just keep competing, you just keep working. Somebody is going to take you. Somebody is not and somebody's going to be sorry."
The last time ABC aired an NFL game, Al Michaels was joined in the booth by legendary football analyst John Madden. Following the 2005 season, parent company Disney moved Monday Night Football from ABC to its cable network ESPN, ending the show's 35-year broadcast run.
But according to SportsBusiness Daily, ESPN will bid on the NFL's generally woeful slate of Thursday Night Football games with the intention of airing them on ABC for the 2018 season. CBS and NBC are paying $450 million per year under the current deal.
On the face of it, it doesn't seem to make much sense, considering Disney has long since transitioned its sports branding from ABC Sports to ESPN on ABC and moved most of its big sports events to ESPN. But ABC has had some success showing sports in primetime in recent years, including its Saturday Night Football college games and the Saturday Night NBA on ABC series.