By Rick Woelfel
For going on half a century, the National Football League has sat atop the pyramid as America’s most popular sport. But as the end of the 2016 approaches this weekend, the NFL does not have the allure it once did. TV ratings are down and there are indications the league’s popularity has plateaued.
The situation must be addressed; there are a lot of dollars at stake. The current network TV contract (involving CBS, NBC, ESPN, and FOX) runs through the 2022 season. The parties involved paid big dollars for those TV rights and in the hopes of attracting advertising dollars along with having a ready-made platform to promote their other programming.
For decades, the networks operated under the notion that there was in insatiable appetite for pro football. But it appears a saturation point may have been reached.
In a typical weekend there are no fewer than five television windows; three on Sunday, one on Monday night, and one on Thursday night. And in the final weeks of the season there are games on Saturdays, although admittedly last weekend was an exception because of the Christmas holiday.
The bottom line is there is a lot of pro football available on TV, some would say too much. In our view the expanded television schedule is having a negative impact on the product on the field. If I were put in charge of restoring some of the lost luster of the NFL on television, here are some steps I would take ASAP.
Eliminate the Thursday games, save for Opening Night and Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving games are a tradition and that’s great; I’m a traditionalist at heart. And having a stand-alone season opener makes sense. But additional Thursday games are unnecessary and at create additional risks for the players. Playing a game on Sunday or Sunday night and then being asked to do the same thing four days later is unfair to the ticket-buying public, which gets a substandard product but most of all its unfair to the players, who are putting their bodies on the line every week. Dropping the Thursday schedule would also mean additional out-of-market/regional matchups would be available for airing on Sunday. And perhaps those Thursday-only uniforms would go away as well.
Start Sunday and Monday night games no later than 8:00 Eastern Time. That means kicking off at that hour. You want fans on the East Coast to be awake at the finish, correct?
Reduce the commercial load during the actual game. If that means extending halftime beyond the current 12 minutes, that’s fine. Viewers get frustrated when a score is followed by a commercial, which is followed by a kickoff, which is followed by a commercial.
Extend the natural break between quarters perhaps or lengthen halftime. But presently most games have little flow to them. And with the coming of the postseason and additional commercial loads, it’s only going to get worse.
There are other factors that contribute to the fact that the product the NFL puts on the field isn’t as scintillating as perhaps it could be. The fact that the starters play so little in preseason and go through so few contract drills (because of CBA stipulations) factors into all this. But that’s a discussion for another time and place.
The NFL remains America’s most popular sporting institution. But unless changes are made it may soon find itself at a tipping point.