The NFL season kicks off with the marquee matchup of Patriots vs. Steelers Sept. 10, but the buildup to this historic campaign appears to be anything but ideal. The league’s troubling pattern of player arrests has continued, including domestic abuse, drugs and illegal gun possession in the offseason. The biggest story coming out of the Hall of Fame ceremony in August was the daughter of Junior Seau, the star linebacker who committed suicide while suffering from a progressive brain disease, being denied the chance to speak in his stead. In recent weeks, the trailer for the film Concussion shows Will Smith playing a doctor who finds grave disease in the brains of two NFL players as the league turns a blind eye.
And of course the NFL’s golden boy, Tom Brady, spent much of the summer in a tailored suit, appealing his punishment after the Deflategate (or, as some wags prefer, Ballghazi) incident in last year’s conference championship. (Brady’s appeal was upheld last week.)
But if you think fans of the NFL are turned off by the negative publicity, think again. NFL programming has for decades been the one sure thing in the ever mercurial ratings realm, and its blockbuster Nielsen numbers continue to defy gravity. “At a time when most sports are seeing ratings reductions, the NFL is just sailing along,” said Neal Pilson, a sports media consultant and former CBS Sports president. “It’s maintaining and in some cases improving audience. It’s just phenomenal.”
Indeed, for all the industry dyspepsia about DVRs and Netflix and cord-cutting, NFL football—be it on Sunday, Monday or Thursday—remains passionately sought out by viewers and TV networks alike. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the off-field misdeeds and courtroom dramas keep the league top of mind long after the Super Bowl wraps.
“The NFL just continues to be a 12-month story,” Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman, told B&C. “I don’t see any indication that the things the NFL is dealing with at this point interfere with fans’ enjoyment of the product. I certainly don’t see it in the ratings.”
Researchers don’t see it either. Frank N. Magid Associates polled sports fans about their favorite league in 2014; 25% said NFL, 11% MLB and 6% the NBA. While 76% of fans think concussions in sports are an issue, they don’t let that interfere with their pigskin parties; 18% more respondents chose “more interested” than “less interested” in terms of NFL football. Concludes Magid’s “Fan Affinity” study: “Followers feel the league needs to take action regarding concussions, but few see it as a reason to stop watching.”
The league’s war chest has grown along with TV ratings. In 2015, it projects its total revenue to be $12 billion, more than $2 billion better than MLB and up $1 billion from 2014, the year when the Ray Rice scandal prompted some pundits to preach end times instead of end zones. This fall’s rollout of Concussion, from the same studio that took on Facebook with The Social Network, attests to the sheer power of a league that once squashed the ESPN scripted drama Playmakers like it was an undersized wide receiver. Emails leaked in the giant Sony hack months ago revealed jitters about the film. “We’ll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest,” wrote Sony domestic marketing president Dwight Caines.
We love the speed and athleticism of the players, the tribal nature of the rivalries, the social aspect of the viewing experience. But perhaps what we like the most about the NFL is also what is most troubling: the violence. In his book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond explored his decision to stop watching the game he adored due to the toll it takes on players, among other reasons. To this day, Almond calls football a “spectacularly entertaining game” and fesses up to missing those lazy Sundays watching with neighbors. But for him, being a viewer came at a prohibitive cost. “I do think that, increasingly, viewers have to carry with them that they’re complicit in something that does not really represent their values,” Almond said.
He and other sports observers cite the gladiator aspect of the NFL as part of its appeal: Enormous, agile and seemingly fearless warriors engaging in a brutal battle for the benefit of howling spectators. “Huge people in armor going out to satisfy the American thirst for speed,” said Pilson, “and, I regret to say, violence.”
In ancient Rome, Pilson noted, it was kill or be killed. “We’ve cleaned that up a little bit,” he quipped.
The NFL also deserves credit for its savvy marketing, including making the sport more appealing to women. The “Style Lounge” on NFLShop.com, for instance, offers a wide array of female merch, including team-branded sundresses for $36.99 and silver bracelets for $32. “The NFL has always been a big event,” said Jaime Spencer, senior VP at Magid. “Now it’s a big family event, not just something dudes go do in the man cave.”
Many sports pundits believed women would tune out following the horrific video of Rice, then of the Baltimore Ravens, knocking his then-fiancée unconscious last year. Pilson said they were dead wrong. “I don’t think the sports media truly understands the interest/support/loyalty of NFL fans,” he said. “More women watch now than before the Ray Rice incident.”
The NFL’s embrace of fantasy leagues, including those with quick turnarounds and cash prizes, has also turned the disinterested into, in many cases, passionate viewers and players. “Fantasy” occupies the first section of the banner atop the NFL.com home page, with links to several fantasy competitions, some offering cash prizes. The leagues are successful in pulling elusive young males into the tent. Add those competitions to friendly wagers among friends and coworkers and many viewers have an extra incentive to watch. “Pretty much everyone has not only a rooting interest, but a legal/not so legal betting interest too,” said Bill Carroll, senior VP/director of content strategy at Katz Television Group.
Thirsty for Thursday
Skeptics blanched when CBS gambled a reported $275 million on seven Thursday night (and one Saturday) matchups last season. But with an average of 16 million viewers per game, the network was all too happy to opt in for a new batch of midweek encounters, starting Sept. 17. Addressing the media in New York alongside McManus last month, Brian Rolapp, executive VP of media at the NFL and president/CEO of NFL Network, spoke of “big hopes and big ambitions” on the Thursday-night front. The league may be reluctant to extend its Thursday deal with CBS beyond 2015-16, for which the network pays a reported $300 million, suggesting that no one truly knows the real value of the package.
On the steamy August day when Rolapp and McManus spoke from CBS headquarters, next February’s Super Bowl 50 got multiple mentions. Spots on CBS are expected to sell for north of $5 million. “It’s another enormous year for us,” said McManus. “We can’t wait to get started.”
Deep down, as the author Almond suggests, the better angels of our nature may suspect we’re complicit in the dark and felonious side of the NFL simply by watching a Sunday telecast. But when friends come over and the beers are popped open, those anxieties are quick to dissipate. “Everyone in the back of their minds may be aware of all that happens outside the stadium,” said Carroll. “But when the ball is kicked off, that’s all put to the side for three hours. It’s like it doesn’t exist.”
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