The Chicago Cubs, and their quest to end a World Series drought that pre-dates the existence of the NFL, has captured the nation. Last night, despite going up against a 5-1 Dallas Cowboys team in primetime against another winning team (and top 10 NFL market) in Philadelphia, the World Series ratings on FOX beat NBC’s Sunday Night Football for the first time since 2011.
There will be plenty of schadenfreude over the seemingly invincible NFL being outdrawn by baseball’s championship series. That will be increased because the league opted to put “America’s Team” into the primetime slot opposite baseball this year, for the first time since NBC and World Series broadcasts began going head-to-head in 2010.
But before we declare any broader reasons for this shift, let’s acknowledge the obvious: the Chicago Cubs and their story are a powerful force attracting many casual fans. If the NFL brass were being honest, they are all Cubs fans rooting for a rally from 3-1 down on two nights without NFL football on the television this week.
The Cubs are positioned to be like the Yankees of the late 90’s and 2000’s, and like the Red Sox of the 2000’s, to be a perennial contender with the acumen, talent base, fanbase, and pocketbook to make frequent appearances. If the Cubs don’t win the title this year, that will only increase the drama going forward. The Cubs will be a draw anyway, but it will always be bigger until the curse is lifted.
Let’s not view this as a case where the NFL has dominated MLB in the past. Here’s a chart showing the viewers for each when they have gone head-to-head.* The NFL’s ratings are noticeably down in the past compared to other primetime Sunday slots–they’ve averaged over 20 million viewers over the past 5 years, but not in World Series matchups, despite prominent teams.
Up until this year, New Orleans and/or Green Bay had been involved in every World Series matchup game. Still, it is a testament to the power of the Cubs that the Cowboys and Eagles got smoked. The last time the NFL lost the overall Sunday ratings to the World Series, it was because the Saints beat the winless Colts 62-7 the year that Peyton Manning was out injured. Last night’s matchup, in contrast, went to overtime.
If anything, the NFL until now has avoided major ratings draws. The Yankees last made the World Series the year before Sunday Night Football and the World Series started going head-to-head. The Red Sox participated once, and that was a game 4, not the current format that puts Game 5 on Sunday (a more decisive game).
The Cubs are probably here to stay for awhile, so the NFL better hope that they are defending champs, and not trying to still break a century-old curse the next time they go up against the NFL on Sunday night.