The following is an excerpt from 'THE GAME’S NOT OVER: In Defense of Football.' Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.
Check out Gregg Easterbrook's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.
The NFL has expanded from twenty-six teams playing 189 games in 1970 to thirty-two teams playing 267 games in 2015. That’s 41 percent more action—Major League Baseball has seen a 26 percent games-played increase in the same period. Attendance at NFL contests has grown from 9.9 million in 1970 to 17.3 million in 2014. Broadcasting has expanded from one game per week to five to seven per week depending on the time of year. The small minority of Americans whose dwellings receive NFL Sunday Ticket may skim around to as many as sixteen games weekly. The larger group with access to NFL Network’s Red Zone Channel sees live-action highlights from every contest. NFL ratings have grown from decent to 800-pound-gorilla class, with the most-watched TV events in the United States all being Super Bowls. Some seventy-six million people watched the Seinfeld
finale; 168 million watched the 2015 Super Bowl. NBC’s Sunday Night Football has for several years been entrenched as the top-rated show on television. The typical NFL game in 2014 drew seventeen million viewers, better than the viewership of Game of Thrones and way better than the one million who tuned in to the typical NBA showdown.
As for money—the government of Greece can only dream of the NFL’s command of money. Thirty years ago, the NFL’s three broadcast partners paid the league about $900 million per year in rights fees to air games. In 2015, the NFL’s broadcast partners—AT&T/DirecTV, CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC, NFL Network, Verizon and Yahoo— paid $7.8 billion in rights fees to air games. That’s nearly nine times as much as three decades ago. Broadcast-rights deals begin to expire in 2021. A bidding war is expected then, if not sooner.
Sponsorship agreements up the totals. Current sponsors including Anheuser Busch, Hyundai, Papa John’s, Pepsi and Visa pay the league about $1.2 billion annually to use the NFL logo.
Future historians may scratch their heads about why CoverGirl sponsors this most masculine of sports: nevertheless, CoverGirl does, paying the NFL for the right to run advertisements of fashion models in football helmets wearing elaborate eye makeup in jersey colors of the Broncos, Dolphins, Seahawks and other teams. Business professors may wonder if it can really be worth $23 million a year to Gatorade to have bottles of Citrus Cooler Extremo on pro football sidelines; Gatorade thinks so. Corporate America appears to have nearly unlimited enthusiasm for the NFL.
Add in local sponsorships, stadium naming rights, apparel sales and other marketing and the NFL garners about $12 billion per year, near to the GDP of Iceland. Did we forget ticket sales? Until a generation ago, pro football was dependent for revenue on placing rear ends into seats. This was the reason owners insisted that games with unsold tickets be blacked out on local television. Today, the NFL revenue base is national television and, increasingly, the Internet, boosted by national marketing. Spinning the turnstiles at stadium gates is nice but not essential, which explains why the NFL is content with franchises in Green Bay and Jacksonville, while much larger cities go untapped.
The ratings and money, joined to pro football’s outsized role in American culture and politics, would seem to make it impossible for the NFL to get any bigger. But at each previous stage it seemed the NFL could not get any bigger, and it did. The same may happen again.
Further growth may come through the simple expedient of more kickoffs. Currently, the NFL stages 256 regular season games followed by eleven postseason contests. That’s a steep increase compared to 1970, when 182 regular season dates were followed by seven postseason confrontations. But why stop at the current total?
The paucity of NFL playoff games has long troubled the networks, if not purists. All the NFL hoopla builds to a mere eleven postseason events, none during Monday through Thursday prime time, peak period for viewership. In 2015, the NBA staged 63 playoff contests, most during weeknight prime time. There’s a lot of airtime crying out to be filled by NFL playoffs.
That NFL postseason contests are few is part of what makes each game exciting and memorable. Tampering with that might dilute the NFL’s remarkable product quality. But more playoff games also would mean more money: When the very rich are given a choice between quality and cash, what do you suppose is likely? If additional playoff games were slated, that would represent extra dessert following the NFL main course. Schedules might be jiggered to place playoff contests into weeknight prime time.
Most NFL owners back expansion to an eighteen-game regular season, either by eliminating two of the four current preseason contests or by keeping all four and adding two real games. Players and coaches uniformly dislike the four meaningless preseason games; television audiences are indifferent; and season-ticket holders abhor them, as teams require season-ticket buyers to purchase the two irrelevant August home games in order to attend the eight real games.
The Santa Fe Opera doesn’t invite men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns to preseason oeuvres with backup divas, and the American Ballet Theater doesn’t stage preseason choreography performed by dancers who will be put on waivers the following day. Broadway shows offer preview performances, with tickets either discounted or distributed free (“papering the house”), allowing performers to become accustomed to audience reactions. If Broadway previews were priced like NFL preseason games, audiences at the preview would be hit up for full price for their seat and also be required to purchase a full-season subscription.
To phrase the NFL situation in haiku,
Fumbles, dropped passes:
teams should pay crowds to attend
the preseason games.
If two preseason games are deleted and replaced by two regular season contests, injuries are likely to increase. Preseason games are played at half-speed, with starters leaving by intermission. Should two preseason contests become games that count in the standings, starters will be on the field going all out. More wear-and-tear on players’ bodies will be inevitable.
The league’s leadership thinks America is eager for a longer NFL season. Roger Goodell, a proponent of the eighteen-game format, said in 2009, “We have not found a saturation point for pro football.” That may be so—but wouldn’t it be preferable never to discover the saturation point?
More regular season games would spawn more advertising minutes to sell plus more who-cares contests. As is, by Thanksgiving, the meetings between eliminated teams can get tedious: the 2014 season December pairing of Tennessee and Jacksonville, with a combined record of 4-24 at kickoff, was not for the faint of heart. Imagine if Thanksgiving arrived, many NFL teams were already eliminated, and the regular season still had two months remaining.
Should the NFL expand to eighteen regular season dates plus fourteen postseason invitation cards, that adds up to 60 percent more contests than in 1970. The Nonstop Football League would be distressingly near. Those who don’t care for football may find the following statistic hard to believe, but there are thirty-one weeks of the year without NFL games that count in the standings, twenty-one with. Two more regular-season weeks would shift the ratio to 29-23. If preseason, the draft and the hype period of training camp weeks are included, we’d reach the situation of more weeks with the NFL than without. Even red-blooded Americans might say, Enough already!
The Nonstop Football League will come closer to being realized should the NFL expand again. There is no shortage of talented, ripped, eager young men. Each spring about three thousand players depart from the major-college football programs—only about half of them graduating, but that’s another issue. About five hundred of the former collegians have some reasonable shot at joining the NFL, and about one hundred fifty each year succeed. That leaves plenty of able bodies to stock more NFL teams.
The Rule of 90/90 controls NFL rosters—90 percent of the fans have no idea who 90 percent of the players are. The New England Patriots just won the Super Bowl: Which of their offensive linemen can you name without peeking at the Internet? Which of their linebackers? If NFL expansion to thirty-six teams means unknowns suiting up for the Las Vegas Blackjacks or the Portland Bongs, so long as each team signs a couple of aging stars, it won’t matter that the remainder of the roster is who-dat.
The NFL stages annual contests in England—one club home team of record though performing thousands of miles from home—and has attempted to win a beachhead in the continental sector of the European Union. Expansion of the NFL beyond North America seems unlikely, though many appealing franchise names would be left on the table. The London Blitz. The Frankfurt Bankers. The Edinburgh Fringe. The Brussels Sprouts. The Tel Aviv Reubens. The Warsaw Buzz Saw. The
Istanbul Intrigue. The Kiev Chickens.
Expansion cities in North America are another matter—easily imagined, regardless of what may happen with the NFL in Los Angeles. Portland and San Antonio are boomtowns. Toronto is the fourth-largest city in North America, Montreal the ninth-largest. (Canadians love the CFL but would be over the moon to have NFL franchises.) Mexico City is the continent’s largest metropolis. The NFL is a lot more popular in Mexico than in the United Kingdom. An NFL franchise called, say, the Mexico City Aztecs would nudge millions of Latino-Americans from soccer toward football as their favorite sport.
Pro football has mixed feelings about Las Vegas. It was half a century ago that NFL stars Alex Karras and Paul Hornung were caught betting on games and hanging out with mobsters. The NFL’s institutional memory still considers this a traumatic moment, and shies from Vegas as a result.
There is a principled argument against gambling, which is that games of chance prey upon those with money problems. The tiny number who win big prizes creates an illusion that gambling is a path to wealth. For most, even when an element of skill is involved, gambling is a path to a repossessed house. Americans lost $119 billion gambling in 2013, twice as much as California spent on Medicaid that year. The largest chunk of losses were from state-run lotteries, which are marketed mainly in low-income zip codes. Two-thirds of state lotto wagering is by persons in the bottom quintile for income: the Powerball machine is in the liquor store, not the Whole Foods. It is deeply misanthropic for state governments to use lottos to lure the poor and working poor into handing over what cash they possess, in return for a few minutes of dreaming that their money problems are about to end.
But principled arguments may be cast aside when money is waved, and considerable money is being waved in sports gambling. At least $100 million was wagered in Vegas on the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl. Those bets required physically being in the city—imagine how the action would grow if anyone could bet legally on the Super Bowl from a smartphone. Jason Logan, of the gambling Web site Covers, wrote in February 2015, “If you ask Nevada sportsbooks which is the most popular sport to bet, they’ll tell you the NFL. If you ask them what the fastest growing sport is to bet, you’ll get the same answer.”
In 2014, the NBA endorsed national legalization of sports wagering. So many NBA teams make halfhearted efforts, or even deliberately lose—at this point the NBA could have an Eastern Conference, a Western Conference and a Tanking Conference—that it would be hard to tell if NBA games were being thrown. By endorsing legal sports wagering, NBA commissioner Adam Silver essentially said that sustaining the integrity of competition in basketball was less important than getting a cut of gambling proceeds.
Nevada already draws significant tax revenue from the legal sports wagering within its borders, with a total of about $4 billion bet on NFL and NBA contests in 2014. New Jersey wants to legalize sports gambling, in order to tax it: many states, and the federal government, may soon seek taxes on sports action. Big corporate entities that traditionally look askance at gambling may change their minds as government and the NBA legitimize this means of picking people’s pockets.
As for the NFL, remembering Karras and Hornung, the league would punish any players or coaches betting on pro football. But the NFL does not hesitate to lease team logos and trademarks to numerous state lotteries, in return for a taste of the money pilfered from the poor. If there were a way for the NFL to receive a cut of football gambling without its players and coaches being compromised, the league might jump.
Pro football expansion into Las Vegas could be one means to combine the NFL with bookmaking. Vegas offers an intersection of Hollywood and music industry celebrities with glamour, glitz and an anything-can-be-arranged-for-a-price mindset. If showgirls staffed the cheerleader squad of the NFL’s expansion Las Vegas Sinners, that’s another draw.
More appealing to the NFL than Las Vegas expansion may be the action on the Web. Fantasy football, since the proliferation of broadband a big factor in rising attention paid to the NFL, has begun merging with gambling. Web sites such as Fan Duel are, on paper, fantasy leagues, but in effect are roulette wheels—“over $10 million in cash prizes paid out each week,” Fan Duel promises. The venture-investing arms of Comcast and Time Warner put $275 million into Fan Duel in 2015, while the venture arm of Fox Sports led a $300 million underwriting round for Draft Kings, the other leading fantasy-qua-gambling Web site. About the same time, ESPN signed an exclusive advertising deal with Draft Kings, meaning Fox and ESPN both now share a financial stake in encouraging gambling on the NFL.
In summer 2015, Yahoo became the latest big corporation to partner with the NFL, winning a contract to live-stream the league’s London contests. Almost immediately after inking this agreement, Yahoo announced a football “fantasy” division that is all but officially a sports book.
That Yahoo, the NFL’s newest corporate partner, supports gambling on the NFL may be a harbinger. NFL clubs could have both a will-call window for tickets and a betting window for laying wagers. The NFL could post its own point spreads and charge a membership fee for using the Official Bookie of the NFL. Season-ticket holders could receive an automatic 0.5 points added to their bets for or against the spread. High rollers could pay to receive insider info from coaches. Not just point-spread bets but over/under and proposition wagers could be administered by the NFL directly. Punters could place wagers on punters!
Regardless of what may happen with sports wagering—I’m offering two-to-one odds that the above paragraph someday will not sound like satire—pro football is likely to continue to become bigger both sociologically and economically. One scenario is NFL expansion to thirty-six teams playing eighteen regular season contests followed by a sixteen-team postseason bracket. That would add up to 340 consequential NFL games—80 percent more than in 1970.
The public may or may not be demanding more NFL contests—but television executives are, and this could be the determining aspect.
With the television world atomized by DVRs and online viewing, there’s steadily less incentive to make popcorn, sit on the couch and follow along live. Increasingly, the content that cable carriers push into the family television may be watched for less, or for no charge, on the broadband and wi-fi systems that millennials pay for in any case. Why use the cable carriers as middlemen for the monthly payment they pass along to the big-four networks, when those networks air their content free on phones and laptops? Maybe you stick with cable to stay in touch with the news. But do you really need to send Comcast $75 a month to beam CNN into your TV, when you could wait a few minutes and get the story—plus video—on the New York Times Web site?
That leaves sports. In the cord-cutting era, the strongest argument for a cable bill is live sports. In turn, pro football is the most popular sport. That leaves the NFL as the salvation not just for the cable industry, but for the networks whose business model relies on the pass-along of monthly fees collected by cable carriers. Big as the NFL has been on television in the last generation, it’s likely to get bigger in the next. CBS, Fox and NBC—and ABC indirectly via its sister channel, ESPN—may cling to the NFL for survival.
While the marketing of cable now favors live sports over other visual content, the economics of television favor sports over sitcoms and dramas, too. Advertising rates for NFL games are almost always higher than for scripted or reality programming. Monday Night Football sells advertising time for an average of about $400,000 per 30 seconds—about double the rate of anything else on TV on Monday evenings. Routine Sunday afternoon contests sell advertising at up to $250,000 per 30 seconds—versus the final season of Breaking Bad, a hullabalooed TV event, selling ads for around $175,000 per 30 seconds. The 2015 Super Bowl brought NBC about $4.2 million per 30 seconds. CBS hopes Super Bowl 50 will break the $5 million barrier.
Television economics favor football over shows in other ways. One is production price per hour. Typically, an hour of a scripted prime-time television show costs around $2 million to produce; the flashy final season of Breaking Bad cost about $3.5 million per episode. That’s versus about $1 million to produce a Sunday afternoon NFL game and about $2 million to produce a night game. (Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football offer more camera angles and game-specific material than daylight contests.) Rights fees that are folded into the production cost of scripted shows must be added to sports programming. But if scripted-show production costs $2 million for one hour while NFL game production is $1 million for three hours, and the NFL advertising rates are higher, which will a network prefer?
Beneath the surface are the venture-capital aspects of television. Pilots for half-hour sitcoms cost about $2 million to make; pilots for hour-long drama shows, even yet another formulaic police procedural, may cost $5 million. But the majority of pilots never become a series. So for each debut prime-time show in a network’s annual upfronts—say, a spinoff called NCIS: Spinoff or a reality show in which contestants are trapped on the sound stage of a reality show—there may be $50 million to $100 million of failed pilots. That’s a hidden sunk cost for the series that actually air.
Sports, by contrast, do not have any pilot-episode expense.
There’s no need to invent an NFL premise every year, develop it in scriptwriters’ meetings, screen-test actors, build sets, go on location shoots, tediously negotiate a dozen “produced by” credits
for Hollywood grandees who will never actually glance at the script. On the day the NFL season kicks off, the sunk cost to reach that juncture is zero.
In turn, the NFL will never be cancelled. Many prime-time series don’t make the end of the first season: a three-season run is a success. The CBS drama Madam Secretary, which debuted in fall 2014, is an expensive show with a big cast, complex sets and a combination of actual location shooting and faux location shoots. (That scene may have looked like it happened in Iran.…) The series opened with fifteen million viewers, a strong number, tailing off to ten million by what was supposed to be the shocking cliffhanger season finale. If Madam Secretary runs seven seasons, as The West Wing did, CBS will be very happy. If the show is cancelled during or following its second year, a large amount of pilot and production money will swirl down the drain.
This doesn’t happen with NFL games. There will always be a next season.
That the NFL grows steadily more important to the survival of major TV networks, and of cable carriers, explains the stratospheric rise of the NFL’s television rights fees. Such payments have grown from $900 million per year three decades ago, to $1.7 billion per year two decades ago, to $4 billion per year one decade ago, to $7.8 billion per year today. The progression is nearly arithmetic, suggesting the fees will double again, to $15 billion a year, within a decade.
* * *
In 2015, a senior executive of an NFL network partner other than ESPN told me, “We can’t allow our writers or broadcasters free reign regarding the NFL anymore, and we are not proud of this. So much money has started flowing through the NFL, while pro football has become so crucial because ratings for everything except the NFL are down, that we are now completely terrified of upsetting NFL owners. When something blows up, the owners demand to speak directly with our CEO, and get put straight through. Our CEO says nothing but ‘yes sir, yes sir.’ We know when the next rights deals are up for grabs, any network that has not appeased NFL ownership runs the risk of being cut out of the action. Basically, we are neutered.”
The NFL entered 2015 with contractual relationships with communications conglomerates CBS, Comcast/NBC, DirecTV, Disney/ABC/ESPN, Fox, Hearst, Verizon and Yahoo. Midway through 2015, the league scored another powerful connection when federal regulators allowed AT&T, one of the world’s largest communications companies, to purchase DirecTV and assume its monopoly over NFL Sunday Ticket. The league has indirect relationships with Charter Communications, Cox
Communications, Time Warner and Viacom, whose cable networks realize substantial added value from offering retransmission of NFL games. Seemingly independent Web sites often have corporate links back to the NFL. Bleacher Report is owned by Time Warner; Comcast owns a chunk of Vox Media, which runs SB Nation.
If ABC, AT&T, CBS, Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications, Disney, ESPN, Fox, Hearst, NBC, Time Warner, Viacom, Verizon and Yahoo all are “basically neutered”
by a desire to please the bilionaires atop the NFL, sports commentary will become even more banal, and sports promotion even more brazen, while the questionable aspects of the NFL are kept far from sunlight.
This disturbing trend is balanced by the continuing tremendous quality of NFL play. The games are really great, and ever-easy to follow as stats and highlights are everywhere. Think the NFL is already too big? Brace yourself.