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Cowboys mean TV ratings gold, Doug Flutie calls game amid tragedy

The Dallas Cowboys are great for ratings, especially on Sunday Night Football, with some of the highest-rated TV games of the year. Plus Doug Flutie called Saturday's Notre Dame game for NBC in the midst of awful personal tragedy. 

As the thousands of hours of NFL programming across multiple mediums prove weekly, there is little that can’t be debated when it comes to matters of the National Football League. But here is one indisputable fact: The Dallas Cowboys are the most popular television team in pro football. Network executives who broadcast the league view a Cowboys game on the schedule akin to a Wonka Golden Ticket.

“People have definitive feelings about the Dallas Cowboys,” says Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli. “Either you love the Cowboys and are passionate about them, or you hate the Cowboys and you are passionate about your hatred. They are one of the few teams that evoke those kind of feelings on both sides of the aisle.”

With Romo back and all the pressure off, Cowboys remain very much alive

They are also one of the few NFL teams that guarantee television viewership, especially for national games. Here are the viewership numbers for the Cowboys during the 2015 NFL regular season, and keep in mind Tony Romo had been out since Week 3 with a broken collarbone before returning Sunday:

Week 1 (Sept.13):
Giants at Cowboys (NBC): 26.8 million viewers.

Week 2 (Sept. 20):
Cowboys at Eagles (Fox, late double-header window): 27.2 million viewers.

Week 3 (Sept. 27):

Falcons at Cowboys (Fox, single-header window): 18.3 million viewers.

Week 4 (Oct. 4):

Cowboys at Saints (NBC): 24.2 million viewers.

Week 5 (Oct. 11):

Patriots at Cowboys (CBS, late afternoon window): 26.1 million viewers.

MORE: Report: Cowboys DE Greg Hardy losing support from team

Week 6 (Oct. 18):

Bye Week

Week 7 (Oct. 25):

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Cowboys at Giants (Fox, late double-header window): 24.5 million viewers.

Week 8 (Nov. 1):

Seahawks at Cowboys (Fox, late double header): 29.4 million viewers.

Week 9 (Nov. 8):

Eagles at Cowboys (NBC): 23.0 million viewers.

Week 10 (Nov. 15):

Cowboys at Bucs (Fox, single header): 19.6 million viewers

Week 11 (Nov. 22):

Cowboys at Dolphins (Fox, single-header): The viewership data will come out Tuesday but note Fox flexed out of the Carolina-Washington game (outside of their specific markets) to the Cowboys-Dolphins game at 3:13 p.m ET on Sunday. Initially, the Carolina-Washington aired in about 65% of the nation. When that game became a blowout, Fox said it flexed 50% of that audience to the Cowboys.

The Cowboys have been part of the most-watched game of the 2015 season (Week 8 vs. the Seahawks), the fourth most-watched game (Week 9 vs. the Eagles) and three of the five most-watched Sunday Night Football games in 2015 involve the Cowboys (Giants-Cowboys, Cowboys-Saints and Eagles-Cowboys). Last year, as Anthony Crupi of Adweek noted, the Cowboys accounted for five of the top 10 most-watched regular season NFL games.

In a terrific piece last October, Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry diagrammed how the Cowboys are by far the most broadcast team around the country. Over the past six seasons, Goldsberry wrote, Dallas was either the first or second most commonly broadcast team in 95 of just over 200 markets around the U.S.

Historically, there are a number of reasons the Cowboys draw well on television. Gaudelli cited the marketing genius of Tex Schramm, the original president and general manager of the Cowboys, for making the Cowboys into a national team, from the design of the uniforms to player accumulation the world-famous cheerleaders.

“They just understood early on how to be in the public consciousness,” Gaudelli said. “I think people just got used to seeing them and when Jerry [Jones] bought the team, he became a George Steinbrenner type of figure in the NFL, the owner as the face of the franchise. Then they won Super Bowls with some really popular players and in the last 15-20 years, there’s just been a never-ending drama there. In the past you would always want at least two or three division games (involving the Cowboys) and then you would hope for another great matchup. I don’t know if I can overstate it. The Cowboys are kind of the linchpin for any television schedule.

“There are a handful of brands across sports that will always generate interest and the Cowboys are one of them,” said Mike Mulvihill,  the Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and esearch and one of the key staffers who decides where Fox airs its NFL games weekly. “In a season like this, there will always be a debate for us between the bigger brands like the Cowboys and a team that is doing really well. Do you use the big brands almost as a crutch or reflexively, or do use your opportunity to showcase teams having big years? There is always that question and not a perfect answer.”

The Cowboys have been a competitive team (8-8 or better) over the past 11 seasons with the exception of 2010 when they finished 6-10. So with the team currently at 3-7, it’s an interesting question to ponder:

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How much of a television draw will they be for the rest of 2015?

The schedule provides a bit of a road map: Three of the Cowboys' next four games are national broadcasts including a Thanksgiving Day game against the Panthers on CBS; a Dec. 7 Monday night matchup at the Redskins, and a Dec. 13 game at the Packers on Fox. The Green Bay game is currently slotted as a Fox standalone late double-header game kicking off at 4:25 ET. The Cowboys also host the Jets on Dec. 19 for a Saturday Night Football game airing on the NFL Network. Fox also has the Cowboys for Week 16 (at Bills) and Week 17 (at Redskins) unless those games are flexed to NBC.

“I think as long as they are mathematically alive in the division, I think they are still a great television draw,” Gaudelli said. “If they get eliminated, it’s not as big. But in 2010 we had a December game between Philly and Dallas after Wade Phillips was fired and it did a ridiculous rating.”

The Cowboys are likely to be mathematically alive for the playoffs come Week 14 against Packers, but I was curious what Dallas being eliminated by that game would mean for Fox given how popular the Cowboys and Packers are across the country. Mulvihill said he believed that if the Cowboys were not mathematically alive, there would be a double digit percentage difference for the rating and a reduction of several million viewers.

J.P. Kirby, the founder and editor of the invaluable, which maps out the NFL’s weekly broadcast schedule, offered one measurement to watch down the stretch. (If you are a football fan, you should check out his site.) Kirby thought the appeal of Dallas this season had dropped slightly, at least based on where television programmers had placed their games.  

“Their games versus Tampa Bay and Miami (this week) have had the lowest distributions of any Cowboys game this season,” Kirby said, prior to Fox making the switch out of the Panthers game on Sunday. “Both games were pretty much down to Texas, some neighboring states and parts of Florida.”

MORE: Newton silences critics with five-touchdown performance

The Cowboys will not appear on NBC’s schedule again this year unless they are flexed, but Week 17 is always open given how the NFL does the final week. Over the years, if the Cowboys have landed on NBC for the final regular-season game, that network and the NFL have seen huge ratings. The Cowboys-Giants regular-season finale in 2011 drew 27.6 million viewers. The next year Dallas at Washington drew 30.3 million viewers, NBC’s most-watched primetime regular season game and the most-watched regular-season primetime game on any network since 1996. Two years ago, the Eagles at Cowboys drew 27.4 million viewers for the regular-season ender.

“They’d have to start winning for us to have the opportunity to flex them on the final week of the season,” Gaudelli said. “However, we were lucky enough to have the Cowboys in three straight week 17 games with the NFC East championship on the line from 2011-13. Those games were ratings blockbusters. If that situation occurs again and the NFL wants to flex it to Sunday Night, we'd be thrilled.”


( examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)

1.On Thursday morning Rob Hyland, the lead producer for NBC’s Notre Dame coverage, received an unexpected phone call.

Doug Flutie was on the other end of the line.

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The morning before, as sports fans read with great sorrow, Flutie’s parents, Richard and Joan Flutie, passed away less than one hour apart. After Richard Flutie died of a heart attack, less than an hour later, Joan Flutie had a sudden heart attack.

“They say you can die of a broken heart and I believe it,” Doug Flutie said on his Facebook page.

Upon reaching Hyland, Flutie wanted his producer to know that he was planning to work Notre Dame’s game against Boston College on Saturday night as an analyst on NBCSN.

“I absolutely want to do the game, Rob,” Flutie told Hyland.

That ended any contingency plans for the network.

Hyland said Flutie had the option of not doing the game, the final Notre Dame broadcast for the year for NBC, and the last thing NBC Sports wanted to do was put any pressure on Flutie.

“It’s obviously a sad situation and you are playing a football game at Fenway Park where Doug Flutie grew up going to games with his family,” Hyland said. “Then Notre Dame’s opponent is Boston College and Doug Flutie is Boston College football. For the tragedy to happen that week, that made everything more challenging.”

But Flutie wanted to do the broadcast. He said his parents would have wanted him there, so Hyland formulated a plan with Flutie and play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks about how to approach discussing his parents’ death on-air.

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“What I said to Doug was,‘Doug, we will be addressing this early but not at the very top of the telecast so it’s not the first thing out of our mouth,’” he said. “I also didn’t want to rehearse it. I told them that Dan will get you to the news of your family and why you wanted to be here. We never rehearsed it but Doug knew that question would be asked on-camera prior to kickoff."

On the air, it went like this:

Hicks: “Well if you were with us in the pregame, you saw the moment of silence observed for Doug Flutie and his family. Doug losing both of his parents earlier in the week, on Wednesday. I know this has been very tough for you but I know how much you wanted to be at this game tonight.”

Flutie: “Mom and Dad wanted me to do this game. The entire family circled this date on our calendars when it was announced. Some of the happiest memories of my parents’ lives where watching their sons and grandsons play Boston College football.”

During the pregame show, at 7:24 p.m. ET, NBCSN acknowledged the moment of silence at Fenway Park for Richard and Joan. Hyland said he wanted to approach Flutie’s story as part of documenting the event, so they covered the moment of silence “the way the fan in the stadium experienced it and the way Doug’s family would have wanted it done.”

After the broadcast concluded—Notre Dame held on for a 19-16 victory—Hyland, Flutie and some NBC Sports staffers went out to dinner in Boston.

“I thought Doug had a great broadcast,” Hyland said. “Doug has been an absolute pro and pleasure to work with all season. I was concerned where his mind would be for this game and all that he has going on this week but it did not translate in any way to his performance on air. He was in good spirits afterward and reiterated how glad he was that he did the game for his family.”

MORE: Notre Dame’s Prosise leaves vs. Boston College with leg injury

1a. During Thanksgiving Week, SiriusXM’s 24/7 college sports channel, SiriusXM College Sports Nation (channel 84 on satellite radios and on smartphones), will air a special eight-part radio series on the history behind several of the most storied rivalries in the history of college football.  The first episode of Gridiron Grudges features the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry and will debut Monday (4 pm and 8 pm ET). Replays will air on Wednesday (10 pm ET), and Thursday (11 am and 3 pm ET). Interviews for the episode include: former Ohio State running backs Eddie George and Robert Smith, former linebacker Chris Spielman, former Michigan lineman Dan Dierdorf, former Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke, and many more.

Additional Gridiron Grudges episodes will feature Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, UCLA-USC , Florida-Florida St. (1958), Georgia-Georgia Tech, Ole Miss-Mississippi St and Oklahoma-Oklahoma St. For more info, click here.

1b. Opinions. Everyone on sports television has one. Here’s four on Peyton Manning that were delivered on Sunday:

Tony Gonzalez, CBS

“If they need to start thinking outside of the box, and I know it's never been done, the old adage, two quarterbacks equals no quarterback. But they need to find a way to rotate him. Maybe he plays every other week. That way they can maybe get a first round bye and give him two games in a row and then get another bye going to the Super Bowl, because that is really what is on their mind.  They want to go to the Super Bowl, and I think Peyton Manning is the guy that is going to get them there.

Giants’ Eli Manning not worried about brother Peyton: ‘He’ll bounce back’

Jimmy Johnson, Fox

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen the last of Peyton Manning. The only way he sees the field is if [Brock] Osweiler gets hurt toward the end of the year, they might bring Peyton back.”

Michael Robinson, NFL Network

“If Brock plays well today, you don’t go back to Peyton [Manning] in my opinion. You have more flexibility in this offense. I think Gary Kubiak would prefer a guy who can move a little bit, a guy who can get out of situations when the offensive line breaks down.”

Rodney Harrison, NBC’s Football Night In America

“He’s crazy. Go spend time with your family. He couldn’t stay healthy last year; he can’t stay healthy this year. You think he’s going to stay healthy next year?”

1c. ESPN said ABC’s broadcast of Michigan State’s win over Ohio State on earned a 7.0 overnight, the highest-rated college football game of the 2015 season across all networks and the highest-rated 3:30 p.m. ET game on ABC since 2006 (Michigan at Ohio State on Nov. 18, 2006). The previous overnight high was the season-opening game on ABC featuring Ohio State at Virginia Tech (on Sept. 7. That game drew a 6.6 overnight.       

1d. Last week’s Patriots-Giants game aired by CBS was the second most-watched NFL game this season: 28.3 million.

2. Sportsnet announced ESPN’s Dan Shulman will call upwards of 30 Blue Jays games on Sportsnet for the 2016 and 2017 MLB seasons, working alongside Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler. Shulman and Martinez called Blue Jays broadcasts together for seven years from 1995 to 2001.

2a. ESPN said it will televise seven MLB Opening Day Games during the first two days of the 2016 regular season, including a World Series rematch of Mets at Royals on Sunday Night Baseball on Apr. 3, at 8:30 p.m. ET. Here’s ESPN’s schedule for the first two days of the season.

3. Episode No. 30 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Telemundo lead soccer broadcaster and host anchor Andrés Cantor. Cantor recently signed a multi-year extension with his network that will take him through the 2016 Summer Olympics, the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Cantor is most known for his goal calls (listen to his call of Carli Lloyd's goal from midfield in the World Cup final here and longtime work in soccer.

In this episode, Cantor discusses why he wanted to become a soccer broadcaster, how he prepares for a soccer broadcast, the difference between calling games off a monitor versus in-stadium, nearly fainting while calling Landon Donovan's World Cup goal in 2010 against Algeria, how he learned English as a teenager growing up in Southern California, how he negotiates using his goal call outside of a game only for promotion, his greatest World Cup broadcast and much more.

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• Remarkably reported ESPN The Magazine Eli Saslow piece on a high school player attempting to return to football after being part of a fatal on-field collision.

New York Times sports columnist Juliet Macur writes with elegance on her late father.

• Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals allowed The MMQB inside the installation of the game plan for their Week 8 meeting with the Browns. Part I . Part 2

Editor-in-chief Kevin Merida talks ESPN's Undefeated project, more

• From Vice Sports: A Pro-Wrestling School in Sin City.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Dave Matter on a Gary Pinkel story he held for 15 years.

Non-sports pieces of note:

The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen on Megan Phelps leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is an absolute must read

• From The Washington Post: Remembering the victims of the attacks in Paris

• Highest rec for this Nicholas Henin piece in The Guardian on being held hostage by Isis.