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NFL Ratings Slide Doesn't Mean We've Reached Peak Football

David Kahn has been general manager of the Indiana Pacers, president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head of the Oregon Stadium Campaign for Major League Baseball and is currently teaching two courses on sports economics at New York University.
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Television ratings for the National Football League were down by about 11 percent through the first six weeks of this season. There have been several theories as to why, including the presidential race, the Cubs' run to the World Series, cord-cutting by millennials and players protesting the National Anthem. But many sports and media analysts say the problems run deeper than just this fall:  that we are witnessing a tipping point in NFL popularity.

Hardly.  What’s truly astonishing about the NFL’s ratings is not that they’re down -- it’s that it took years of such dedicated “piling on” by the league for these numbers to even modestly dip. There is no other form of entertainment that could do what football has done over the last decade: add layers upon layers of additional telecasts, at all hours of the day and days of the week, and maintain its spell over the American television viewer.

For decades there were three “windows” of NFL football per week:  1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Sundays, and "Monday Night Football."  Then came “Sunday Night Football” on ESPN, with a much splashier move to NBC in 2006. And then “Thursday Night Football,” which sometimes showed up on Saturday night, and last weekend appeared on Sunday morning, live from London, with the Giants playing the Rams under the “TNF” brand.

Finally, the 4 p.m. window has been opened wider still, with the last kickoff coming at 4:25 p.m., allowing Sunday-afternoon action to bleed almost directly into Sunday night -- and, as was the case this past weekend, into Monday morning.  It was 12:11 a.m. Monday on the East Coast when the Seahawks-Cardinals game ended in a sad 6-6 tie -- meaning the NFL had played nearly continuously on TV for over 14 hours. Same show, different uniforms.

To put it in the simplest economic terms, an increase in supply typically lowers demand.  The NFL has nearly doubled its supply of telecasts -- and yet, demand had remained relatively steady.  The question shouldn’t be why NFL ratings have dropped 11 percent; the question should be, what took so long?

The real explanation behind this is the saturation of football -- and not just NFL football.  Missing in these doomsday analyses is the explosion of televised college football.

Football is like wine:  there are red and whites, but it’s all wine, just as college and pro football are all football and consumed by the bucket. College football’s rights fees have exploded because of the intense competition between Disney-owned ESPN and Fox Sports, and the proliferation of conference-owned networks (Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network, SEC Network).  Those escalating contract costs have driven these networks to create more programming windows to recoup their expense -- which is why kickoff can now occur as easily at 7:30 p.m. Thursday as the traditional 1 p.m. Saturday.

And yet both varietals of the sport remain relatively strong. In the midst of this internecine competition, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers delivered a whopping 17.4 rating two Sunday afternoons ago.  And SEC football ratings are up -- up! -- 12 percent this season. The NFL ratings that have tumbled the most have been Sunday night and Monday night, both down by 18 percent through Week 6, no doubt impacted by viewer fatigue setting in after all-day watching on both Saturday and Sunday.

Baseball should have such problems. Last Thursday night’s pivotal Game 5 between the Cubs and Dodgers, two of the National League’s marquee teams playing for a trip to the World Series, did a 7.1 rating on Fox Sports 1. At the same time, on CBS and the NFL Network, a week 6 regular-season matchup between the 1-4 Bears and 3-2 Packers did a 14.2.

The Cubs-Indians World Series should provide a temporary uptick for baseball -- Game 1 pulled in a 12.6 rating, the best in seven years. Nonetheless, baseball still suffers in comparison to football in terms of capturing younger viewers in a sports culture fueled by Red Bull and NFL RedZone -- a league-owned channel that flips between games whenever a team is within 20 yards of a touchdown. It has become the channel of choice for teenagers who prefer keeping tabs on their fantasy teams to watching an actual game.

Those teenagers may not be tuning in for Sunday Night Football, but make no mistake: they’re watching football.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Kahn at dbk4@nyu.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net