The Business: All-Out Ratings Blitz
Why does the NFL’s domination on TV continue to surge?
Get a bunch of baseball fans in a room — or a bar — and ask them what the most exciting play in baseball is, and the answers will be all over the map: Triple. Scoring the game-winning run from second base on a shallow single. Stealing home. Suicide squeeze.
The bottom line? None of them is exciting enough to make baseball a ratings hit.
Baseball may be America’s pastime, but we are a football nation. Sunday Night Football on NBC recently beat Game 4 of the World Series on Fox -- the first time in history football has beaten a World Series game.
Remember, this football game, between the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers, was merely an early-season marquee matchup. If, by some twisted adaptation of the calendar, you could have the Super Bowl up against the World Series, baseball wouldn’t get a quarter of the ratings — even if women were playing nude and your TV spit out free beer coupons.
The ratings this season are being absolutely dominated by the NFL on network and cable. Most impressive is that on Sunday, one of the most heated nights of television, NBC’s SNF has been laying out the competition. The Nov. 21 game between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles averaged 23.2 million viewers — the best number for a November NFL game in 14 years. And let’s not forget that Super Bowl XLIV in February was the single most-watched television program in history.
It’s hard to figure out why football is a rising ratings tide from year to year (the numbers, particularly in the key advertising demo of adults 18-49, keep growing). Americans do love them some violence. But the allure of football transcends that; otherwise, it would just be akin to boxing. No, what’s working for the NFL seems to be a combination of things, including:
- Players with increasingly amazing speed, size, power and freakish athleticism. It’s an adrenaline shot of pure sports mixed with scary brutality.
- A short, tense season: 16 games compared with baseball’s 162 and basketball’s 82. Every game matters, and losses hurt more.
- The game is ours. No other country can field a team that would beat the lesser lights in our college system.
- Football is an ideal TV sport, and networks continue to come up with clever ways to enhance the viewing experience. Wait until 3D TV takes hold.
- More than other sports, even nonfans know many NFL players — from celeb-dating quarterbacks Tom Brady and Tony Romo to reality-show star Terrell Owens and the soap opera that is Brett Favre.
- Snicker if you will, but fantasy football holds a powerful grip on fans. It’s an addiction/hobby so prevalent that every channel covering the NFL, from ESPN to Fox, runs fantasy stats during games. And the league itself has embraced it.
- Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the locker room: Football wagering brings in three times the amount of gambling revenue in Nevada as the next-closest sport (basketball). And that doesn’t take into account online, offshore or office pools.
So why the surge now? The most likely culprit is — wait for it — an exceptionally weak fall TV season that has failed to stir the great masses. Could it be that redoing cop, lawyer and doctor dramas in decreasingly innovative or interesting ways has turned viewers away?