The NFL’s Numbers Game

By all accounts, it's been a good week for Roger Goodell.

Super Bowl XVLIII became the most-watched telecast in U.S. history, with Fox garnering 112.2 million viewers on live + same-day basis. The 82,529 who attended Seattle’s 43-8 demolition of Denver spent a record $11.7 million on food, drink and retail at the Big Game. The thousands who visited the metropolitan area and took NJ Transit to and from MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. survived (we think) and now have war stories to tell their family and friends.

And CBS became the league’s de facto Thursday Night Football telecaster, a move that will sate the wont of the NFL commissioner and other executive to forge a bigger presence on that important night of the TV week.

On Feb. 5, the league announced that the leading broadcast network will televise eight games, mostly on Thursday nights early in the 2014 campaign, with its top on-air team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms calling the action. The 72-million-home NFL Network will simulcast those contests and then air eight contests exclusively in the second half of the season, largely on Thursday nights. As such, games will run on CBS and NFL Network on Thursday nights from weeks 2 through 12 -- NBC will have the season opener and Thanksgiving -- before NFL Network picks up the action again from weeks 14 through 16. The package will conclude with a Saturday doubleheader in week 16 -- an afternoon contest followed by a primetime affair -- that will be drawn from the league's pool of games.  It has not been determined if CBS will pick up that night-time match-up.

The rights fee -- NBC, ESPN (for ABC), Fox and Turner Sports all made bids -- was reportedly in the $240 million to $300 million range.

“NFL Network built Thursday into a night for NFL fans,” said Goodell in announcing the deal for 2014, on which the league holds a one-year option. “Our goal is to bring these games to more fans on broadcast television with unprecedented promotion and visibility for Thursday Night Football on CBS.”

How much is more? Certainly, the numbers for CBS and its 116 million households are going to jump well above the record 8 million viewers that NFL Network (counting contributions from the over-the-air stations in the DMAs of the participating clubs) scored with during the 2013 season and the 13.7 million for ESPN’s Monday Night Football franchise. Can the CBS/NFL telecasts in the first-half of the season approach the respective, robust 18.7 million and 21.2 million viewer averages for Black Rock and Fox on Sunday afternoons or NBC’s Nielsen-best 21.7 million for Sunday Night Football?

Although the league figures to schedule some better contests for TNF now that CBS is also paying for all the game production and putting its top on-air tandem of Nantz-Simms on the mic, it just can’t load up with better matchups, like it does for NBC gets with SNF. Or will it? There just aren’t that many good games to go around week to week. Moreover, there is no flexible schedule in play on Thursday nights.

So one has to wonder whether games involving the likes of Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker or Buffalo Bills signal-caller EJ Manuel outperform Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons or Two and a Half Men’s Ashton Kutcher. We’ll see next season.

CBS Corp. topper Les Moonves talked about how the NFL is the most premium of all content, and how the deal gives the top-rated network all kinds of options for its scheduling game plan. The gambit also effectively keeps the ball away from other broadcasters.  

But if the NFL is truly boffo, then why wouldn’t it extend Thursday Night Football to a full season on broadcast after this one- or two-year tryout? CBS or whichever networks might want in on the projected  primetime paydirt figure to be looking at around $1 billion or more in yearly rights fees. That could be the price to play, considering that NFL Network currently garners a reported $1.25 in monthly subscriber fees, which puts its annual affiliate revenue in the $1.08 billion range. Of course, the NFL couldn’t expect MPVDs to continue to pay that kind of monthly freight if there weren’t any or just a handful (think that pair of Saturday contests, or perhaps an early Sunday morning slate from London, a few seasons down the road) of games on its in-house network? Could it?   

And for those of you who don’t always quite put full stock in Nielsen ratings, I leave you with these thoughts. Fox crowed about the 44.5 rating/70 share at kickoff, the best on record. I’ll buy that. There was plenty of hype about how the cold and early projections of precipitation were going to make a snow globe out of the crowd and the players.  And Peyton Manning’s place in the pigskin pantheon was on the line against Peter Carroll's truly top-flight defense.

But Nielsen data also indicated that the host market, the nation’s largest, delivered a 50.5 rating, its best Super Bowl rating since 1987, when Simms’s 22-25 marksmanship led the Giants past John Elway’s Broncos, 39-20, in Super Bowl XXI. That 1987 game, by the way, averaged 87.2 million viewers for CBS.

Really? So more people in the Big Apple were interested in watching Archie and Olivia’s middle child and Richard Sherman, than baby brother Eli and everybody in the DMA's best bud Tom Brady go at in Super Bowl XLVI, the previous record-holder with 111.3 million viewers on NBC? For those who think that Jets fans can't stand to see the Giants prosper, those favoring Gang Green hold Tom Terrific and his sullen skipper Bill Belichick, the man who was so every briefly the HC of the NYJ, in equally high regard. For some it was no doubt a nightmare, but it was a car wreck for most of the Metro masses. Most Jet fans I know were certainly rooting Big Blue that day -- and against the New England Patriots 365 days of every year.  At any rate, the Eli-Brady rematch, the battle of  DMA No. 1 versus No. 7, wasn't decided until the final play.

At what point was Super Bowl XLVIII over for you? Maybe is wasn't after the safety on the first play from scrimmage. But how about when game MVP Malcom Smith’s pick six of a Peyton duck made it 22-0? Or when Percy Harvin ran back the second-half kickoff to stretch the Seahawks’ lead to 29-0? No getting around, it was a stinker in the (partially frozen) swamp. 

Maybe a lot of people just have to watch all the commercials. Maybe party-throwers were holding back their best dip and spiciest wings until the fourth quarter. Maybe others just had to stick it out until the confetti flew because there aren’t any more football games on TV until August.

But logically, many viewers had to hit the remote and head to Downton Abbey, or Shameless. Just saying.