Even with the 2.5 points the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were getting at home, Monday night’s wild card game was pretty much over early in the second half after Michael Gallup caught a 2-yard touchdown pass to give the Dallas Cowboys a 24-0 lead.
Yet while the game turned out to be a dud, the NFL certainly found out how putting the playoffs in prime time on Monday would perform.
Pitting G.O.A.T. Tom Brady against America’s Team, the Tampa Bay-Dallas telecast averaged 30.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched game on either ESPN or ABC since the 2006 Super Bowl. It was the most-watched non-Super Bowl NFL matchup on a Disney-owned network since a Cardinals-Cowboys game in 1999. ESPN said earlier this week that it expects the final viewership numbers to reflect that it actually surpassed that 1999 game and could produce the highest NFL ratings since Disney bought the ESPN network in 1996.
Monday marked the second time the NFL tried a playoff game in that slot, and this one peaked with 35.6 million viewers shortly before halftime, while the average viewership throughout increased 32% from last year’s Monday night wild card game between the Cardinals and L.A. Rams (which the Rams won by 23).
This year’s six wild card games averaged around 28.4 million viewers, a 4% decline from last year’s opening round, but still quite strong. And with some compelling matchups in the divisional round this week, the games have a chance to surpass last season’s record-setting ratings for that round.
The small decline for the wild card round mirrors the regular season, in which NFL games averaged 16.7 million viewers, down 2% from 2021. But the decline was largely attributable to Thursday Night Football moving to Amazon’s Prime Video, where some people either can’t watch or don’t want to go through the hassle of paying for or finding a given game.
This is a good moment to reflect on how significantly sports wagering might be contributing to these consistently strong ratings. Variety recently reported on a survey it conducted in which 67% of sports gamblers said they watch NFL games longer if they have action on the game.
So, even in a blowout like the last two Monday night wild card games, people continue to watch. After all, if you had Julio Jones as an anytime touchdown scorer (+500 at FanDuel), you had to stick around to see if your bet cashed — and you got rewarded at the end of the third quarter when he caught a 30-yard TD pass from Brady to make it 24-6.
Anything that keeps people glued to their sets or devices — and available to be influenced by ads — is golden to television and NFL executives. It is yet another reason why the league has shifted its stance so staunchly to pro-sports betting in recent years.
Al Michaels gets testy with criticism
Not all of the wild card broadcasts got consistently rave reviews.
Some fans found the NBC pairing of Al Michaels and former NFL coach Tony Dungy — their first time as broadcast partners — to be a little sleepy. Michaels isn’t having any of it. In a text exchange with New York Post sports-media columnist Andrew Marchand, Michaels called the complaints “internet compost.”
“You know me as well as anyone,” Michaels wrote Marchand. “No screaming, no yelling, no hollering. It’s TELEVISION! Ellipses and captions are [sufficient] when pictures tell the story. I’m not doing a game for over-the-top YouTube hits.”
It didn’t help when the Jacksonville Jaguars fell behind the San Diego Chargers 27-0 in the second quarter, but Jacksonville ended up storming back and winning 31-30.
“I thought the energy was much better once Jax made it a game,” Michaels said.
Perhaps. But it’s also possible the pairing of two laid-back broadcasters who choose their words carefully might not mesh with what viewers are looking for.
Disney facing criticism over business practices
A couple months ago, we wrote about executive Bob Iger’s return to Disney and how, on its face, it might not indicate a move away from sports betting plans for the company.
But Iger’s problems have grown since then, with the most recent threat a push by activist investor Nelson Peltz to get a board seat and push to cut costs and move the company back to its core businesses. Peltz criticized Disney and said it should revamp its streaming business, refocus on profit growth, and clean up the company’s succession plan.
Peltz’s investment firm, Trian Partners, owns just a $900 million stake in Disney, according to The New York Times, a relative pittance for such a massive company. But Disney is taking Peltz’s comments seriously. On Wednesday, the company offered Peltz a role as a “board observer” and asked him to sign an agreement that would prohibit him from buying more shares. But Peltz declined and went public with his campaign, releasing a website called Restore the Magic.
There are no clear references to sports betting on the website, but all the chaos and confusion at Disney could muddy the waters for months as the sports betting industry continues to wait to see what Disney and ESPN will do.