The NFL is television’s unchallenged goliath, setting new viewing records last season that helped the league generate approximately $10 billion. But one businessman sees trouble on the horizon. Outspoken billionaire NBA owner Mark Cuban (Shark Tank) predicted an NFL “implosion” in the next decade, pointing to overexposure, as well as the sport’s health and safety concerns, as a recipe for disaster. “They’re trying to take over every night of TV,” Cuban told ESPN, while discussing the league’s recent deal with CBS to air Thursday-night games on free TV. “Initially, it’ll be, ‘Yeah, they’re the biggest-rating thing that there is.’ Okay, Thursday, that’s great… Then if [the NFL] 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.”
In a followup Facebook post, Cuban played out the NFL’s hypothetical takeover of prime time and asked, “Will we see a Who Wants to be a Millionaire effect?” referring to that show’s law-of-diminishing-returns demise after it became a daily fixture.
To many football fans, the answer is a definitive, “Hell, no!” As ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser cannily — if cynically — pointed out on Pardon the Interruption on Tuesday: “Nobody bets on [the outcome of] Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” In fact, many football fans who plan their autumn Sundays around NFL games and also tune in for the league’s Monday and Thursday night showcases are likely thinking, “Why can’t we have games on Friday and Saturday too?” Perhaps some network execs are asking the same question.
Funny story about that, actually: The NFL is legally prohibited from televising games on Fridays and Saturdays in order to protect high school and college football. No joke. Back in 1961, Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act, which gift-wrapped the NFL an antitrust exemption so the league could negotiate its collective TV rights, rather than have its teams competing against each other. The league was just then coming into its own as mass entertainment; the first Super Bowl was still six years away. College football, in many ways, was still the more popular sport, and the NCAA’s lobbyists and politicians inserted a specific provision that would ensure that the pros could never threaten the college game. There literally is a line in the legal mumbo-jumbo that outlaws “the telecasting of all or a substantial part of any professional football game on any Friday after six o’clock postmeridian or on any Saturday during the period beginning on the second Friday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December in any year from any telecasting station located within 75 miles of the game site of any intercollegiate or interscholastic football contest.”
So technically, the NFL can schedule a game on an October Saturday without threatening its antitrust exemption — as long as it’s 76 miles away from the nearest high school game.
The thing is, the sports and entertainment landscape has changed dramatically since 1961, when baseball, boxing, and college football were still the top draws. (Note how college basketball didn’t receive the same congressional protection as its BMOC gridiron classmates.) Today, the NFL is television’s crown jewel, and it’s not even close. The last Super Bowl was watched by a record 111.5 million people, and 34 of the 35 most-watched TV programs last fall were NFL games. (Only the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade prevented a clean sweep.)
Sports, in general, remain the rare old-school event television that is impervious to the DVR viewing habits that have undermined the rest of the medium’s programming. Since 2003, overall prime-time viewership on the four major networks has plummeted 29 percent, while NFL regular-season TV ratings have soared by more than 30 percent. No wonder the networks (plus ESPN and DirecTV) forked over $5.5 billion just to broadcast next year’s NFL games, constituting about half of the league’s annual revenue.
Ten-billion bucks is a nice number, but the NFL is aiming much higher. Four years ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told the league’s 32 owners that their goal was $25 billion in revenue by 2027. That will require some pretty aggressive initiatives, like more games in Europe to grow the game internationally, an expanded regular season or playoffs, or more prime-time TV games — like the revamped Thursday-night games that set Cuban off. American fans are infuriated by the idea of losing their local team’s “home” games to London, and the players union has so far resisted the league’s push to add two games to the regular-season schedule. So that leaves adding an extra round to the playoffs — which now seems likely — and more prime-time showcases as the most obvious untapped revenue streams.
With all its muscle, which would likely be bolstered by the networks hungry for more NFL, might the league and its lawyers be tempted to mount exactly what Cuban describes: a surefire ratings smash titled Saturday Night Football that would immediately revitalize the most desolate night in network television? Or, hypothetically, might there be some loophole that would allow for online-only pay-per-view? College football would definitely suffer, but the balance of power between college and the pros has shifted, and Washington politicians might now be more persuaded by the NFL.
On Monday, Goodell responded to Cuban’s blast by saying, “We’ve taken a very incremental and thoughtful approach to how we take more games to a national platform. That’s been, in large part, driven by our fans. The fans want those games. … We see the reaction by the ratings and the viewership levels and we see the reaction of the media companies who say, ‘This is terrific, this is something.’ We’ve moved — in this case on Thursday night — to a broadcast platform, an even bigger platform to allow more fans to enjoy the game. I think this is very thoughtful and strategic and frankly it’s a response to the fans. That’s what we’re interested in. We are focusing on our strategy and our fans and how we serve them better.”
For generations, the NFL has been a Sunday ritual, but millions of fans might actually prefer a late game on Saturday night to NBC’s top-rated Sunday-night broadcast, which sends everyone to work on Monday minus a few hours of sleep. Certainly the players would opt for it over a Thursday game, which often leaves them worn-down and strategically ill-prepared. But when asked about the possibility of playing games on Saturday, an NFL spokesperson wrote in an email, “There has been no discussion of changing the days of the week on which we play.”
Fair enough. But technically, the NFL already plays games on Saturdays, occasionally after the SBA-imposed mid-December deadline and traditionally in the first rounds of the playoffs. So maybe the league wouldn’t have to “change” the days they play, as much as just renegotiate the policy and establish a new emphasis on Saturday games. There’s a lot of money on the table after all. NBC pays approximately $950 million each year for Sunday Night Football. When it comes to expanding to Saturdays to grow the NFL pie, the key reference shouldn’t be Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?