TGS SPECIAL REPORT...BEHIND NFL RATINGS DROP--PART II
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Maybe they knew something after all.
We're talking about sports owners and sports leagues of yesteryear, when the prevailing philosophy, at least regarding TV, was that "less is more." Of course, it was a different era when TGS began publishing in 1957, before an explosion in TV rights fees would be worth billions of dollars. In those days, team owners and leagues would derive most of their revenue from the live gate. While there were a handful of exceptions (some baseball teams were glad to telecast as many games as they could, home and away, including none other than the Chicago Cubs on WGN), most owners believed that TV would eat into the ticket sales and resultant revenues (parking, concessions, souvenirs, etc.) from actual attendance at the stadiums.
Long-ago LA Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley was one of the most famous practitioners of that mindset, limiting the exposure of his popular team over the local TV airways. For many years after moving to LA in 1958, O'Malley allowed the Dodgers to televise only select road games, mostly involving games in San Francisco, which for years were the only times LA fans could watch the Dodgers on home TV. O'Malley gradually relented in the '70s by adding a few more road games to the local TV schedule, but the thought of televising a home game was almost taboo; O'Malley would do it only twice in his first 20 years in Los Angeles, both times after the games (the opening contest at Dodger Stadium in April 1962, and the final game of the 1971 regular season against the Astros, when the Dodgers were involved in a torrid division race against the hated Giants that would be decided on the last day of the regular season) were already guaranteed sellouts. Only when cable TV became a reality and began to provide a new revenue stream in the late '70s would the Dodgers relent and allow their fans to see the home games (providing, of course, they were subscribers to what was called "ON TV," a development O'Malley lived to see before his passing in the summer of 1979).
We mention all of this because former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was of a related, though not necessarily similar, mindset. Rozelle knew the value of TV for his league but was also careful about overexposure, part of his "NFL as a sophisticated diversion for fans" mantra. He also had to deal with his owners, who were mostly (though not completely, specifically the Cleveland Browns' forward-thinking Art Modell) from the O'Malley school, and were adamant about strict blackout rules in effect for their home games. Rozelle, however, was hardly an impediment to them, championing the same mindset that would also include blackouts of championship games; hard as it might be for modern fans to believe, the first six Super Bowls were not telecast in the originating cities (including the first Super Bowl in Los Angeles, which caused such as uproar that disgruntled fans loosely organized the only "TV blackout boycott" in NFL history, limiting attendance well below capacity at the massive LA Coliseum for Chiefs-Packers). Facing another possible revolt from LA fans for the Dolphins-Redskins Super Bowl VII, Rozelle announced an "experiment" that would lift the local blackout of the game if it sold out ten days in advance.
Dolphins-Redskins did sell out and was televised locally in LA, and was the catalyst to a league TV rule change that would roughly coincide with the beginning of the subsequent 1973 season, in which a 72-hour deadline was imposed to lift a blackout; if games sold out by that time, they could be televised locally. Eventually that rule became mostly unnecessary, as even when a team approached the 72-hour deadline without a sellout, local advertisers or the televising TV station would buy the remaining tickets to ensure a lift of the local blackout. Finally, in 2015, the NFL would officially drop its blackout policy, as teams did not have to meet a 72-hour sellout deadline for the games to be televised locally.
We suspect that had Rozelle lived to see 2016, however, and the current TV ratings drop (as first discussed on these pages three weeks ago), he might have shaken his head with an "I told you so" look. Too much of anything is not necessarily good, and Rozelle was far more wary of overexposure and its related downfalls than either of his successors, the wooden Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell, whose corporate, bottom-line mindsets lacked the intuitive instincts of predecessor Rozelle.
Of course, Rozelle's near 30-year term as commissioner spanned the ancient-to-modern sports TV eras, but Rozelle was said to have concerns about the NFL brand beyond the exposure of its games on TV. We can only wonder how Rozelle would have reacted to the non-stop, 12-months-per-year consumption of the NFL in a countless variety of different forums. At least Rozelle considered the games themselves as the end to whatever means of the football industry. Ol' Pete, however, might have seen the dangers of the suffocating coverage and NFL marketing, from social media to its own network, and peripheral related enterprises such as fantasy football, which for a growing legion of fans would eventually become more important than watching the games themselves.
We are simplifying things, of course, because there are so many different facets of the modern-day marketplace from the Rozelle era, specifically of how the NFL and sport are consumed these days by a variety of different means. Moreover, it is a fact that the viewing public is not watching TV the way it used to watch TV, with so many other delivery outlets available for so many different products. TV viewership in general is down. But there are indications that all of these factors combined have pushed the consumers to a saturation point with the NFL, which for many is no longer that "sophisticated diversion" to which Rozelle used to refer. Rather, the NFL has become a means to an end for a new generation of fans more interested in inane social media messaging and daily fantasy sports games of which the NFL is merely a contributing vehicle. Who needs to spend 3+ hours watching a game if none of your fantasy players are participating, or when anyone can follow commentary on Twitter, 140-or-fewer spaces at a time, to find out what is happening?
In our first installment of this story three weeks ago, we mentioned some of the potential contributing factors to the current drop in NFL TV ratings, which absorbed another hit last weekend when World Series Game Five on FOX would outdraw the Sunday night Eagles-Cowboys game on NBC. Something like that hadn't happened in years, and perhaps can be traced to the alluring World Series storylines of the Cubs and Indians, an immensely popular matchup. The ongoing drama and distractions of the presidential race (dynamics which might not all be due to Trump and Hillary, as TV ratings last took a significant hit in 2000, the year of Bush-Gore and the related dramatics that endured into December) and some possible fallout from Colin Kaepernick and other national anthem protests, as well as well-documented off-field problems for a variety of factors (Ray Rice, etc.), could also be distractions or turn-offs of various degrees for the fan base.
But this is not the first time the NFL has found itself in a similar bind. We well recall back in 1984 (interestingly, another presidential election year), when the league last experienced this sort of "product crisis" and had many media outlets speculating about what might be wrong. Sports Illustrated devoted much of a November 1984 issue, including its cover, to that year's alarming NFL TV ratings skid. Inside of the issue, feature writers Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman and Bill Taaffe tackled the subject with ferocity, offering all types of explanations.
The astute Zimmerman believed the overexposure angle had something to do with the 1984 ratings drop. "Everyone has tried to cash in on the football action," said Zimmerman. "In the spring and summer you've got the USFL. On Saturdays in the fall you can watch a dozen college games. On Sundays you've got the NFL on NBC and CBS, plus all the college reruns on cable, and on Monday nights, as well as the occasional Sunday and Thursday nights, you've got the NFL on ABC. They're choking us with football, and it doesn't take a member of Mensa to figure out that if you keep stuffing a goose, pretty soon it's going to explode."
In 1984, Bill Taaffe in the same SI issue also suggested too much TV might be the root of the problem as he presented his commentary as part of a "letter" to Rozelle. "Get rid of all Sunday night and Thursday night and Who-Knows-What-Other night editions of Monday Night Football," said Taaffe. "When you clutter the calendar with all those garbage editions, no one game seems special. Finally, reduce network doubleheaders on Sunday by half. (It's not in the Ten Commandments that CBS and NBC must show games for seven hours every other week.) Less is more. I know this will cost you money in the short term, but ratings will come back, and you'll eventually be better off. Trust me."
Dr. Z offered all sorts of remedies, but his most interesting observation related to a Monday Night Football game in October of that '84 year between Green Bay and Denver at old Mile High Stadium. The ratings went boffo for that one week, with the only rationale being the blizzard in which the game was played, and the spectacle of an old-fashioned football war conducted in the elements. The game would eventually become tense, but in the opening moments appeared to be a farce, with the Broncos scoring defensive touchdowns on the Packers' first two offensive plays of the night, staking Denver to a 14-0 lead just 34 seconds into the game. Even 32 years ago, such developments were usually considered death for TV football ratings. But curiously, the viewers did not tune out that night, even with the lack of any offensive fireworks, as a nation was nonetheless captivated. For that evening in 1984, the game once again intrigued, even if it was the weather that was the contributing factor. And a ratings recovery would indeed begin the following season coinciding with the emergence of the immensely popular "Super Bowl Shuffle" Chicago Bears, whose rambunctious style re-tapped a rich vein of fan interest, along with the ongoing emergence of exciting new stars such as Denver's John Elway and Miami's Dan Marino, the stylish 49ers, and the Giants reawakening the Big Apple fan base. The product would give the audience a reason to tune back into the games.
Thirty-two years later, those observations by Paul Zimmerman and Bill Taaffe continue to intrigue, but this is a storyline that will continue to evolve. As will our commentary, which will continue in another installment of this piece later in our publishing season, complete with a suggestion that we believe might reverse the NFL ratings drop in a hurry. Stay tuned.
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