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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...BEHIND THE NFL RATINGS DROP

                                      by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

“A (TV) set owner last night had visions of football...prospering to the point of extinction. The human mind does have a saturation point. NBC, in conspiratorial liason with the Orange Bowl officials and the city fathers of Miami made the longest New Year’s in the history of football.” --Jack Gould, NY Times TV critic, January 1965

“Many are speculating over why the NFL seems to have lost some of its magic. In a word, it’s PERSONALITY, or rather the lack of same. There’s a monotony to the games. Only a few superstars possess the pizzazz to arouse dwindling fan interest. If you’re a gridiron purist, and like defense and special teams, then Seattle and Denver are interesting. Washington, however, reminds us of an old war horse, still tough but not exactly thrilling. Dallas is like a fading beauty queen whose once good looks can only faintly be seen through middle-aged lines. About the only charismatic teams are Miami, featuring an exciting new gunslinger, in Dan Marino, and San Francisco, a stylish professional outfit. Don’t understand why the networks who complain about sagging ratings don’t offer more of the Dolphins and 49ers and less of Dallas, Dallas, and Dallas.” –Mort Olshan, TGS founder, 1984

“All sorts of solutions were offered to revitalize the game–and thus help goose the TV ratings. These included less obtrusive officiating, shortening the games, changing the scoring, more imaginative coaching, sprucing up the players’ images, tighter screening of prospective owners to avoid more Bob Irsays coming into the league, and so on and so on.

“Some of the ideas are constructive. On the other hand, the folks at the networks and the NFL must consider a larger and more disturbing question. Have people simply had their fill of football? In my opinion, they have. As I’ve said before, it’s practically impossible for the networks ever to recapture their storied ratings in 1981. The revolutionary changes in the industry–cable, home video machines—militate against it.

“In my opinion, Super Bowl ratings have peaked, just as they have for Monday Night Football. The changes in the industry that I have already mentioned are irreversible. The marriage between the NFL and the networks has entered a period of reevaluation and readjustment. Those halcyon days of yore are gone for good.” –Howard Cosell, from I Never Played the Game, 1985

The subject of football overexposure is not a new one. As noted above, various insiders have been offering dire warnings to gridiron and TV executives for more than a half century. For the most part, and until recently, they turned out to be false alarms. In the case of NY Times film critic Jack Gould, it was a long-ago reference to the first-ever New Year’s bowl night game, the 1965 Orange Bowl, which moved to prime-time hours for its telecast on NBC, airing an unprecedented three straight bowls (Sugar, Rose, and Orange), extending deep into the night hours on that New Year’s Day from nearly 52 years ago, and the dangers of football over-saturation. (What would Gould have thought of a normal college football Saturday, a half-century hence, in which countless games would be featured almost round-the-clock, on varieties of networks and channels, each week?)

The examples of our own Mort Olshan, from a TGS editorial late in the 1984 season, to ABC’s Howard Cosell, from his classic 1985 book, I Never Played The Game, were more specific to the NFL, and dealt more with the pitfalls of a diluted product as well as the familiar overexposure arguments. Through the decades, various other respected sports journalists have offered similar predictions on the eventual fate of too much football.

Yet as the NFL expanded its TV reach and ratings continued to climb, observations like those above were mostly dismissed by the football industry, which has continued to grow and expand its presence in the modern media. Most of the modern-day sports journalists would eventually stop speculating altogether about the possibilities of NFL overexposure, ignoring warnings from the likes of Olshan and Cosell from past generations, and instead parrot the accepted narrative peddled by the gridiron industry–the public appetite is insatiable and there can never be enough football!

Rather suddenly, however, it appears as if the likes of Jack Gould, and more specifically Mort Olshan and Howard Cosell, might finally have a point. Though the first five weeks of the 2016 season, NFL TV ratings have dipped alarmingly from a year ago, down roughly 12-15% across the board, with no bounce-back in sight into the sixth week of the season. Merely a temporary blip, based on a variety of odd current factors (Colin Kaepernick? Deflate-gate? Donald Trump?), or the sign of something truly amiss and of potential greater concern to Roger Goodell and the NFL hierarchy?

Interestingly, the idea of football overexposure was reintroduced in 2014 by none other than Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who, while discussing a variety of topics in an interview, offered his own warnings to the NFL regarding its insatiable desire to expand its presence. Cuban’s comments, dismissed by much of the media two-plus years ago, now sound almost clairvoyant.

“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Cuban said in the 2014 interview. “Just watch. Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.”

Cuban was specifically referring to the NFL’s expanded television package. He considered it a poor business decision for the NFL, which consistently dominates TV ratings, to play games on days other than Sunday and Monday.

“They’re trying to take over every night of TV,” Cuban added. “Initially, it’ll be, ‘Yeah, they’re the biggest-rating thing that there is.’ OK, Thursday, that’s great, regardless of whether it impacts [the NBA] during that period when we cross over. Then if it gets Saturday, now you’re impacting colleges. Now it’s on four days a week.

“It’s all football. At some point, the people get sick of it.”

Cuban’s comments were panned by much of the sports media. Except by Sports Illustrated’s respected Don Banks, who revisited Cuban’s observations a few months later in September of 2014, just as the NFL was in the midst of its Ray Rice-fueled p.r. nightmare.

“Upon further review, maybe Mark Cuban had it right,” said Banks two-plus years ago. “Not that the NFL is headed for implosion in another 10 years, or that oversaturating the game on TV will prove to be the league’s big misstep looming on the horizon. That kind of doomsday scenario is far from likely.

“But as the worst month in NFL history continues to unravel more than unfold, perhaps hubris is the sin Cuban was really talking about, the one that could knock the too-big-to-fail league from its lofty perch. His larger point was that a league that gets too confident in its own sense of invincibility and too convinced of its own superiority tends to grow a bit fat and sassy, and could wind up being found guilty of overreaching in pursuit of profits and under-responding in terms of responsibility. It could easily slide toward arrogance and fail to see the potential for its own mistakes.”

We at TGS believe the ratings drop is an evolving storyline due to a combination of factors. Some are not going to be recurring; after all, prime-time games going head-to-head vs. presidential debates can only happen once every four years. Ratings, however, have dipped even without having to butt heads with Hillary vs. Trump. It’s also too simple, we believe, to assign the ratings dip to fan backlash against Kaepernick and subsequent other player statements during the national anthem; we and various insiders suspect any dip as a result of a fan boycott due to those factors, while measurable, is also mostly negligible.

Perhaps more to the core of the problem has been the absence of Tom Brady, the retirement of Peyton Manning, and absences of a variety of other star players (Adrian Peterson, Tony Romo, J.J. Watt, Cam Newton, etc.) that have temporarily diluted many of the marquee teams and games. Some less-than-scintillating Monday and Thursday prime-time matchups could also have something to do with the ratings dip. Indeed, it’s those featured games in which the ratings decline from last year (as much as 18%) is its most severe; the Sunday afternoon games, while also down from a year ago, have dropped mostly in the 4-5% range, not nearly as precipitous as the prime-time ratings.

The worry for the NFL, of course, is that the ratings plunge is going to evolve into a new normal, and soon will begin to impact advertising dollars; already, the TV networks are being forced into more dreaded “make-goods” with advertisers due to ratings undershooting projections by such wide margins. For the time being, however, aside from ever-changing viewing habits in the marketplace, and an unmistakable dip in overall TV consumption, we suspect the ratings fade has a lot to do with a similar scenario as noted by our own Mort Olshan way back in 1984. The product itself is in trouble, with teams and plays and players too much resembling one another, contributing to often-difficult viewing. As in 1984, truly entertaining teams are few and far between. The games often bore. There are plenty of other factors, however, contributing to what could become a permanent decline.

To be continued on these pages later this fall...with some easy-to-envision scenarios that we believe could reverse the NFL’s current ratings dip.

Next week: NBA 2016-17 season wins preview!


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