One of the most important media trends of the past 40 years has been the fragmentation of the television audience into niches and sub-categories, to the point where a top-rated show today would barely crack the top ten programs of the 1970s.
Pro football has been the one great exception. Year after year, the majority of the most-watched shows are football games, with the Super Bowl the most-watched broadcast of the year. Just last fall, for example, 23 of the top 25 single broadcasts were football games. And the Jan. 8 Steelers-Broncos game on CBS, with more than 42 million viewers, ranked as the most-watched TV show since the last Super Bowl, and the most-watched “wild card” game ever.
It’s not surprising, then, that the NFL continues to extract large broadcast fees from the networks. Some consumers who never watch sports complain that the high cost of football and other sports programming amounts to what is essentially a “sports tax” on all viewers, because those large fees translate into higher cable bills. The New York Times recently estimated that the cost of sports adds $100 a year to the average cable bill.
A hundred dollars a year might sound like a lot to people who hate sports, but to many other viewers, especially men, everything else on TV amounts to an “X-Chromosome tax.” Sports is overwhelmingly watched by men (two-thirds of all football viewers are men) while the non-sports part of the TV schedule is viewed predominantly by women. What about the “tax” that men have to pay for unwatched dancing and singing contests, girly sitcoms, or wedding, cooking and makeover shows?
In any event, what is it about football that attracts so many viewers? Here are some suggestions:
- The rise of the quarterback. TV needs narratives and personalities. Fortunately for football, the increased importance of the passing game has raised the prominence of the quarterback, giving every team a public face with some kind of back story: Tom Brady and his supermodel wife; Peyton Manning’s “everyman”; the rising stars of Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees; the bad boys Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, this year we’ve had the legend of Tim Tebow, whose games drew enormous ratings. Because of the focus on quarterback personalities, when two teams meet it is not a battle between two faceless entities, but a duel between the two quarterbacks (even though they never appear on the field together at the same time).
- The limited number of games. Football is played once a week over four months, mostly on days when people are not working; this is followed by a month and a half of playoffs. Consequently, every game becomes “event” to promote, anticipate, watch and talk about. This scarcity of content means that each football game is 10 times as important to a team’s overall record as an individual baseball game. (Indeed, how many times do you hear a baseball player dismiss a seemingly important loss or victory as just one game out of 162? That would NEVER happen in football.)
- Cross-marketing: The NFL is spread across five networks, including three of the four major broadcast networks. This means that it is virtually impossible to watch any of these networks without seeing commercials for football.
- The nationalizing of the game: Because the big TV contracts are with the NFL and not the individual teams, when you tune in on Sunday (or Monday night), you are not necessarily watching a specific team, you are watching generic “football,” preferably one of the high-profile teams (Giants, Jets, Patriots, Eagles, Packers, etc.) In other words, if your own local team is not doing well, you can find an alternative team (or quarterback) to root for. This is why the small-market Green Bay Packers can become one of the country’s most popular teams, while baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers, operating in the same market, are virtual unknowns.
- Gambling and sports leagues. The proliferation of gambling sites that make betting lines broadly available and the growth of fantasy leagues give many fans an increased personal stake on the game. In many cases, fans are more interested in whether a team beats the spread or how a particular player is doing than in who wins or loses the actual game.
- The best and worst of human nature: Football appeals to both our blood lust and our longing for beauty. It’s both violent and balletic. With any play, but especially on passing plays, there is the possibility of a bone-crunching, career-ending injury, or a feat of unimaginable athleticism.
Football’s dual nature has only been enhanced by instant replay, high-resolution camera work and other technical advances.
Now that the second round of the NFL playoffs are over, we enter the most fevered time of the sports year: the conference championships and lead up to the Super Bowl itself. The Super Bowl is an unofficial national holiday and is always the biggest TV show of the year. It has also set the record two years in a row as the most-watched show of all time. Will we see a new record this year? It might depend on whether one or both of the two-remaining marquee quarterbacks (Brady and Eli Manning) make it that far. I’m sure the NFL and NBC don’t play favorites, but it’s no secret that a Brady/Manning match-up, which would reunite the protagonists of the 2007 Super Bowl, would provide enough “narratives” to whet the appetite of even the most casual football fan.