Why the NFL Is the “King Of TV”

`           Yesterday, I discussed the dominant position of the NFL in the world of television.  Today, I want to hypothesize on why that is the case.  Obviously, Americans like the game of football and like to watch it; to get to the level of dominance on TV that the NFL has gotten to, the viewing public must like what they tune into watch.  That is a sine qua non and needs no further discussion.

Another key element for the size of the audience for NFL games is the betting market for those games.  Sportsbooks in 30 states and on the Internet do a huge business in terms of handle for pro football games, and the fact is that viewers like to watch games where they “have a little something riding on the outcome(s).”

However, those two factors – – love of football and the easy access to a place where a wager might be made – – seems not to carry over to major college football where there are rabid fanbases for at least twenty of the top-shelf college teams.  Thinking about that difference leads me to consider two things that I consider to be major factors as to why NFL football enjoys the perch that it does.

  1. There are only 17 games per team in an NFL regular season; so, every game is important to about 24 teams who have playoff aspirations at the start of every season.  One NFL game carries the same weight as 9.5 MLB games in terms of the standings; one NFL game carries the same weight as almost 5 NBA games.
  2. NFL games are on TV 3 times a week; but in general, there are only 5 games to watch on those days.  Only a third of NFL games are available to fans on “free TV”, so there is a measure of scarcity there.

Let me compare those two situations to other sports as it regards their TV presence:

  • College Football:  The 12-game regular season makes “every game matter” even though every major college schedules about 2 games a year where only the final score matters.  However, the fanbases for college teams do not overlap that much for most of the year and there are too many regional situations where fans of Team A have no interest in another conference game in their own conference.  As an example, in recent years, Alabama fans have not been on the edge of their seats waiting to hear about the results of the Missouri/Vandy game.  Truth be told, 99% of Alabama fans could not care less…  Also, for fans of Alabama – – or Georgia or Ohio State or Michigan or … – – virtually every game on the schedule is available for viewing by the fanbase.  So, the audience for major college football is fragmented and it is saturated at the same time for the really rabid fans of individual teams.
  • MLB:  There are 162 games in the regular season and it is difficult to see how any matchup in early May is going to be “critical” way down the line in September.  Major league baseball games are occurrences; NFL games are events.  There are ways to bet on baseball games, but statistics say that the handle in sportsbooks during baseball season is only about one eighth of what it is during football season.  People do not bet on baseball games nearly as much as they do on football games and that reduces interest in tuning in to see how your team – – and your “action” – – is doing.
  • NBA:   There are too many games in the regular season to hold viewer interest; a November game between two teams that have the same chance of “making a playoff run” as the Washington Generals is simply uninteresting.  Many fans would rather watch a weeknight MAC football game than watch the Detroit Pistons square off against the Houston Rockets.  There is ample interest in wagering on NBA games but there is far too much inventory for TV to handle.  The NFL regular season is 272 games; the NBA regular season is 1230 games.

The NBA and MLB also suffer from over-exposure on TV.  I don’t know if this is the case for every MLB and/or NBA team, but I can see all of my local teams’ games if that is my choice.  That is a lot of time staring at a TV screen.  Think about it; 162 Washington Nats games at 3 hours apiece plus 82 Washington Wizards games at 2 hours apiece equals 650 hours of my life watching a whole lot of games that I knew were irrelevant even before I turned the TV set on.  Meh!

Many years ago – – after the dinosaurs went extinct but before the dawn of the Internet – – there was this thing that MLB did on Saturday afternoons called the “Game of the Week”.  It was an event; I got to see teams from far away from my home viewing area; it was special; I watched those games far more often than not..  That programming is gone and replaced by myriad meaningless games that I have learned to avoid.  MLB has chosen quantity over quality; the NFL does no such thing with scheduling flexibilities that allow for important games to be “flexed” into prime viewing windows; the NFL values quality programming over “whatever programming”.

Basically, the same situation applies to the NBA; quantity trumps quality of their programming into my household.  I very much enjoy watching sports on TV, but I would rather spend two hours comparing health insurance plans than spending two hours watching the Washington Wizards compete in a life-and-death-struggle with the Charlotte Hornets.  In addition, the NBA games have to deal with “load management” games.  Were I to happen to tune in to see the Wizards play the Sixers – – as an example – – , one of the things I would want to see there is the play of Joel Embiid and James Harden.  Now, if one – or both – happen to need a night off to rest up, my interest in watching that game would evaporate about 5 minutes into the first quarter.

And that brings me to my final comparison sport – – college basketball.  I love college basketball; my long-suffering wife has to plan our social life around Conference Tournament Week and March Madness every year.  Notwithstanding the superior skill level demonstrated by NBA teams, I far prefer to watch college basketball to pro basketball.  And having said that, college basketball is so over-exposed on TV that it has become a travesty.

Last weekend, the Washington Post dutifully reported on the various sporting events that would be available to people who had access to various over-the-air channels and cable sports channels in this area.  For Saturday and Sunday there were 31 different college basketball games available and a couple of them were available as replays on channels that did not carry the games live.  Let me do some math for you;

  • 31 games involve 62 teams.
  • These were not 62 of the 68 teams that will compete in March Madness 2023.  In fact, some of the games involved teams where I was only half-aware that the school competed in Division 1 college basketball.
  • College basketball – a sport that I love – is grossly overexposed on TV!

Like MLB, college basketball used to have a regional college game on the weekends along with a national game.  Here in the DC area, we could watch the best ACC game on a weekend and also find a game between – say – UCLA/Notre Dame.  If that is the weekend menu; that is “appointment TV”.   If my TV menu includes Quinnipiac versus Niagara, I would choose to rearrange my sock drawer instead of tuning in.

The NFL has found the “sweet spot”.  It puts lots of games on the air to gather an audience and develop widespread interest.  At the same time, it minimizes the out of area coverage for “meaningless games” and uses scheduling flexibility to assure a good game in most of the big-time viewing slots.  And every regular season game has significant meaning in terms of playoffs and potential championships.  The other major sports in the US have not figured out how to do that – – and unless they do they will never overtake the NFL as a valuable TV property.

Last weekend, the NFL semi-final games drew audiences of around 50 million viewers – – give or take a couple million.  The Super Bowl in two weeks will certainly play to an audience of 95 million viewers or more,  Consider these data:

  • 2022 March Madness Final Game attracted 18.1 million viewers
  • 2022 FIFA World Cup Final Game attracted 16.8 million viewers (in the US)
  • 2022 NBA Final Series averaged 12.4 million viewers
  • 2022 MLB World Series averaged 11.8 million viewers
  • 2022 NHL Stanley Cup Finals averaged 4.9 million viewers (in the US)

The disparity in the audiences is massive.  I believe the key factors are the importance of every week’s games in the NFL tied to the scheduling that makes fans appreciate the league as well as the local team that fans root for.  Other sports need to do a lot of catching up along those lines…

Finally, since today’s rant was about the NFL’s dominance of the TV marketplace, let me close with this observation from former Jets’ coach Herm Edwards that may have some relevance to the Super Bowl game in two weeks:

“One thing you know about playoff competition is this: If you have a hot quarterback and your defense can take the ball away, you don’t need to have a dominant defense anymore.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



4 thoughts on “Why the NFL Is the “King Of TV””

  1. How far society has devolved since 1963 and the Paul Hornung/Alex Karras gambling scandal. 50 years later, we have television ads for betting. And where do the Raiders play?

    I think the analysis of the NFL “sweet spot” could use some tweaking. Interleague games are meaningful? Not hardly. If anyone cares to fill their time (I prefer sock drawer rearranging), they could use the following criteria to research how many “meaningless” NFL games were nationally televised last year: interleague game and at least one team with a sub-.500 record at the time.

    1. TenaciousP:

      What Hornung and Karras showed in 1963 was that people were gambling on football games even though it was not legal for them to do so. Whether or not one approves of gambling on football games, people did it then and do it now. the difference now is that people do it openly – – and in greater numbers.

  2. Years ago I heard an opinion and it still holds true. Football is a sport you watch; baseball is a sport you follow.

    I am not sure where basketball fits in that comparison, but I am overwhelmed by my choices most nights and because of Watch ESPN I do not have partition my time to see the games I care about. And, I am a consummate channel surfer.

    1. Doug:

      Your “watch versus follow” distinction is a good one. Another difference between watching football and watching baseball on TV is that there are more adrenaline peaks and valleys in a football game than there are in a baseball game. That may also influence the greater number of viewers for the NFL as opposed to MLB.

Comments are closed.