Baseball playoff ratings are up as NFL's overall downturn continues

By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Last season’s Week 6 Sunday Night Football showdown between the Patriots and Colts drew a 14.6 overnight rating, which at the time was the best total since 1997 for an NFL primetime game going against baseball’s league championship series. Sunday night between the Colts and Houston Texans, however, had a drastically different result.

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According to SI’s Richard Deitsch, the Sunday Night Football contest between Indianapolis and Houston drew a 9.0 overnight rating, a 38.4 percent drop from Patriots-Colts in the same time slot last season and the worst total for the program since Colts-Saints in 2011. The Texans won 26-23.

FOX’s late-afternoon slate of games, however, saw a boost in ratings year-over-year. The network’s double-header of Cowboys-Packers and Eagles-Redskins averaged a 13.6 rating, which is up from an 11.3 drawn by Seahawks-Panthers in Week 6 last season, according to FOX Sports exec Michael Mulvihill. Ratings for CBS’s slate of games have yet to be released.

The uptick in FOX’s ratings may lead analysts to point to the quality of the games themselves as the reason for the decline in the NFL’s ratings in 2016. Cowboys-Packers was a marquee matchup between two of the NFL’s biggest fan bases and markets. However, it’s hard to believe that Colts-Texans was so much worse of a product than Patriots-Colts last year for the ratings to drop by nearly 40 percent, despite the massive intrigue surrounding the Patriots’ rematch with the Colts from the 2014 AFC Championship Game. Was Colts-Texans really the least watchable SNF game in five years? (Well, it might have been.)

Fans hold up a "USA" sign during the national anthem before the game between the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills on October 16, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Fans hold up a “USA” sign during the national anthem before the game between the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills on October 16, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

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The elephant in the room continues to be the growing movement of fans who are boycotting the NFL over the rampant national anthem protests by NFL players, which was sparked by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco played in Buffalo on Sunday, where Bills fans booed Kaepernick and chanted “U.S.A.!” before he kneeled during the national anthem. Colts tight end Dwayne Allen kneeled after the national anthem Sunday night, but later clarified that it was a simple prayer and not a protest.

There is data to support the idea that a large segment of Americans are viewing the national anthem protests as a tipping point for them as NFL viewers, responding by changing the channel. FOX’s ratings growth on Sunday’s late-afternoon slate showed that high-quality matchups can still draw in viewers, but the precipitous drop for primetime matchups on Sunday and Monday night so far in 2016 can still be attributed to a confluence of factors.

Deitsch also reported that Game 2 of the NLCS between the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers drew a 5.0 rating, which makes it the most-watched event in the young history of the FOX Sports 1 network. Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS between the Cubs and Giants was previously FS1’s highest-rated contest. While baseball’s ratings still pale in comparison to the NFL overall, the boost in its own ratings (as well as the NHL) is worth watching as it coincides with the NFL’s downturn.

It’s clear that FOX benefitted from featuring two strong matchups, as those have been hard to find so far in 2016. But as evidenced by the plummeting SNF and Monday Night Football ratings, the overall problem is clearly still there for the NFL. As long as fans continue to grow tired of not just the quality of the game broadcasts and product on the field, but what many of them view as a sign of disrespect toward the American flag and national anthem, there’s little reason to believe the overall numbers will improve anytime soon.

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Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.