It’s not the gambling. It’s not fantasy. It’s not the violence. Okay, maybe it is all of those things. But there’s one other thing.
Early ratings already indicate that last night’s AFC title game was the most watched program of the entire television season with over 54 million American viewers. The NFC Title game also brought in over 50 million viewers, and that game was relatively shitty for a good long time. The NFL kicks the shit out of every other sport in ratings, and while gambling and fantasy ball are big factors why, one of the biggest reasons is because, out of all sports, it’s the only one that has steadfastly resisted the migration to cable television.
Every single NFL playoff game is broadcast on network television. And out of 272 regular season games, only 26 NFL games are aired on cable television over the course of the entire season, less than 10 percent of the league’s entire slate. That’s in wild contrast to baseball and basketball, both of which now stage the majority of their regular seasons and postseasons on cable television. In fact, I think that it’s likely you’ll soon see the NBA Finals and World Series played entirely on cable TV. Why not, right? College football just staged its championship game on ESPN to excellent ratings. And whenever the NBA airs on ABC, it’s branded as ESPN anyway, so that it FEELS like watching cable (more on that in just a second). Both of these sports made a conscious decision to move over to cable, and the NFL is DESTROYING them because of it.
You hear all the time about network TV erosion and all that shit, but the fact remains that being on network television still has some semblance of cachet in today’s world. Estimates vary, but the general consensus is that the number of households without cable in the United States is somewhere between 14 and 25 percent, a figure that represents tens of millions of people. Yes, most of these people are old and lame and smell bad, but they watch TV and the NFL benefits from the extra eyeballs. Also, the economy is complete dogshit right now, and while there are people like me who would sooner stop paying for health insurance than cable (really, it’s true — I don’t need this 9-inch head wound examined), there are plenty of people out there who have had to look at their budgets and consider whether or not it’s worth it to fork over the $80 or so every month to the bastards at Comcast.
So maybe you’re too poor or too old to afford cable. That said, you can still watch the NFL. You can’t watch the NLCS later this year, or the Eastern Conference Finals. But you can watch the NFL. You can watch the regular season. (Regionally, of course. The point is you can still watch at least three or four NFL games a Sunday on network TV during the fall.) You can watch every playoff game. You know the schedule. You can watch how the entire story unfolds and get hooked on needing to see the end. Watching the NFL is effortless, and we Americans like things that don’t require effort. That stands in stark contrast to watching the NBA Finals on ABC later this year and not really knowing or caring how the teams involved got there.
What’s more, if you don’t have cable, you’re clearly more likely to watch the NFL than someone who does. Your choices are more limited, and competitive programming on other networks is pretty limp against what the NFL has to offer. The NFL occupies real estate on three of the four or so channels you have. Basketball and baseball only have one broadcast network affiliation each, and those broadcasts are all fairly sporadic. ABC will air a grand total of three NBA games this March, and only four games in February. That’s barely anything.
So there’s a straight numbers argument to be made for keeping your league’s games on network television, but here’s another: BULLSHIT IMAGINARY CACHET. If you’re 10 years old, you have no mental distinction between a broadcast network or a cable network. It doesn’t matter to you. ESPN, NBC, they’re all the same shit. But if you’re my age, you remember growing up without cable, when all you had were three stupid networks, early FOX, and whatever piece of shit UHF station aired reruns of Voltron. Those days sucked, mind you, and I’m very glad they’re behind us. But leftover from that era is an irrational part of my brain that believes, for no good reason, that a sporting event that airs on network TV is more important than a sporting event that doesn’t. I wish I could reprogram my brain otherwise, but I can’t. I see the ALCS being played on TBS and I think to myself, “That is FUCKED up,” and not just because TBS does it so badly, or because baseball is stupid and gay. The fact of the matter is that ESPN does just as good (or bad) of a job presenting sports to you than any of the major networks. It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. But it does.
Part of it is that “event television” mentality, an elusive concept that so many TV execs spend their four-hour workdays trying to capture. Simmons has long made a point of distinguishing play-by-play announcers by whether or not you feel like you’re watching a big-time sporting event. And it’s the same way with networks for me. If I’m watching the AFC title game on CBS, part of my brain believes there are a zillion other people out there watching it at the same time. Football fans. Casual fans. Young people. Old people. Rich dickhead people. Poor people. It makes me feel a little less lonely, even though that’s a complete illusion and the reality is that I’m a loser with two kids and no friends who’s watching the game by himself because he has nowhere else to watch it. But that self-delusion matters. If I’m watching the exact same game, and it’s airing on HGTV or something, that feeling is gone. Regardless of whether or not the game drew more viewers on cable. It’s a prejudice. It’s the world’s least meaningful prejudice, but it’s still there.
Again, this is only because I’m old and dumb. But that event mentality matters. I desperately miss watching the NBA on NBC, because Marv Albert did the games and John Tesh did the score and for some reason I gave more of a shit. ABC can barely be bothered to air NBA games anymore, and when they do air them, that lack of enthusiasm has corresponded with my own, despite the fact that the NBA product is, by many accounts, as good as it’s ever been. Adding insult to injury is the fact that ABC slaps ESPN all over the broadcast and makes you feel like you’re watching cable, which is the precise OPPOSITE of what they should do if they want to pull in more casual older viewers.
So if you’re someone out there who runs a sports league, let me say this: If you willingly decide to move the majority of your games (particularly postseason games) over to cable television, YOU ARE A FUCKING IDIOT. You are. Go ahead and start eating paste now, because you’re dumb. You’re doing the NFL a favor. You’re running on 3rd and 9, basically. The NFL has shown no interest in moving far away from broadcast TV, and that’s why they pretty much own everything right now, and will continue to do so even if they’re dickish enough to hold a work stoppage. I’d like to think no one watches the broadcast networks anymore, because they’re stupid and they air shitty David E. Kelley shows. But even with cable and the Internet and On Demand, people still watch them, a lot more than most cable networks. It’s something the NFL understands that pretty much every other sport failed to grasp. And that’s shortsighted, because a lot of Americans out there can’t miss what they can’t see.