Not that long ago, the idea that the NFL would cancel a prime time live game broadcast was unthinkable. Those days are over, and nothing is more indicative of this “new normal” than the decision to cancel the last Sunday Night Football game of the season.
Defenders of the NFL are already saying that decision had nothing to do with the downtrends in ratings this year. They’re blaming the juxtaposition of New Year’s Eve, a day when most people skip TV, and the fact that this last game would probably have been pretty dull.
Other NFL apologists have said the league hasn’t had a New Year’s Eve game in a long time, and that last one was a big one. Back in 2006, the Chicago Bears hosted the Green Bay Packers, and everyone expected it to be Brett Favre’s final game with the Pack and maybe his final game for good. Turns out it wasn’t, but even with that looming narrative, only about 13 million people tuned in.
Further, the final game of the season is almost always a snoozer. Playoff teams sit their starters to keep them healthy, and who but the home fans really want to watch a sub-500 team in the final game of the year?
But, honestly speaking, when was the last time a live NFL game threw in the towel before the contest was even played? Most sports fans don’t buy all the “good reasons” why the game was called ahead of time. After all, why schedule it in the first place? Could it have nothing to do with steadily falling Sunday Night Football ratings?
Besides, the teams that would have appeared in the Sunday night game still played—just earlier in the day. NFL broadcasting chief, Howard Katz released a statement saying:
“We felt that both from a competitive standpoint and from a fan perspective, the most fair thing to do is to schedule all Week 17 games in either the 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. windows …”
While NFL viewing is down overall, the two biggest disappointments have been Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football. They might still be able to grab viewers earlier in the day. What they do with them could set the trend for next season.