If you’ve watched the NFL for long enough, you’ll know that being among the most successful teams does not necessarily guarantee that you’ll be among the most watched teams. The decision on who gets in the most prominent TV spots depends on several factors, some of which are maddening to consider at times. So in another fun adventure with data while we await training camp, I was curious to see just how much correlation there has been between the two.
I am defining “prime TV appearances” as appearing either on Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, or having the #1 Sunday afternoon broadcasting crew on CBS or Fox calling the game. Excluded are Thursday night games (almost everyone gets one of those), Thanksgiving games (since the Lions and Cowboys are always guaranteed to be in those), the opening game (half of which is awarded on merit), and any other out of the ordinary appearances.
All data was referenced from the incomparable 506sports.com, which has done an excellent job tracking NFL on TV since 2005. Since that’s the only readily available data, this will study the 11 seasons from 2005 to 2015. In that time, there have been a total of 743 prime TV appearances, resulting in 1,486 slots for teams to play in. If those slots were distributed equally, each team would get 46 or 47 of them, or about 2 to 3 prime TV appearances per year.
Of course, such equality does not exist, and ideally we would think to want teams to appear in prime slots based on how good of a team they are. But as you may well suspect, that ideal doesn’t get met either for reasons that have nothing to do with merit. So let’s start looking at some tables.
Expected vs. actual prime TV appearances
Expected prime TV appearances are calculated as a product of the team’s winning percentage against what the mean number (46.4375) would be for a .500 team. A difference is then taken between expected and actual prime TV appearances, with the table sorted in order of getting more appearances than expected at the top.
It should surprise no one that the Cowboys are far ahead of everyone else in getting more prime TV appearances than their record indicates they may deserve. Like it or lump it, the TV networks still very much consider them America’s Team, and as such are going to give viewers what they want: their fans to see them win, and their haters to see them lose. Last year, Fox put the Cowboys in the late slot, standalone with no other Fox games airing, four times, despite finishing with a 4-12 record.
The Cowboys factor plus the East Coast bias also helps division rivals of the NFC East, as the Giants and Eagles come in at #2 and #3 despite having merely above average winning percentage. But at least #4-7 are all teams with top five winning percentages. Only the Colts are missing at #12, and even then they get just about as many prime TV appearances as their record would indicate.
Ranked difference in winning percentage vs. prime TV appearances
Now, some of you may be saying, “Well, we really shouldn’t be using a pure ratio to winning percentage, because good teams should be in prime slots more often than that, we want to see the best teams play!” I agree with this: the only problem is that determining how often we want to see the best teams play is a subjective question. We Broncos fans may have taken glee in watching Denver crush terrible Raiders teams, but most other fans will be eager to be switched to the infamous “more competitive game”.
So in an attempt to take a different look at this, I decided to take the difference of the rank of each team’s winning percentage against the rank of their prime TV appearances.
OK, now we really start to see NFC East über alles at work, with those four teams taking four of the top five spots, with the exception (the Jets) being located in the largest TV market. Interestingly enough, however, is the fact that in this list, the Cowboys are the least offender from the NFC East. That’s because that, while the Cowboys have developed a reputation for pure mediocrity on the field, as this shows they actually have the ninth highest winning percentage in the NFL from 2005-2015. So while they may get on prime TV more due to popularity than merit, it may not be as bad as it seems. On the other end, it unfortunately did not surprise me to see the Seahawks at the bottom despite their overall success in the past 11 years.
Since this is a Broncos site, I should conclude with some comments focused directly on them. I was pleased to learn that the TV networks have actually treated them quite fairly in the past 11 years. They have the 7th most prime TV appearances while having the 5th best winning percentage. Yes, some of that is due to the Peyton Manning effect, as 42 of their 81 prime TV appearances came from 2012-2015. However, the other 39 from 2005-2011 still put them at 11th highest during that time, and they had the 10th best winning percentage over those seven seasons.
Finally, since this is a Broncos site I’m also obligated to point out that the Raiders had the worst winning percentage from 2005-2015, yet they didn’t get the fewest prime TV appearances over that span. Seeing them there at #6 on the second table may be more outrageous than being spoonfed terrible NFC East games.