Wednesday, October 24, 2012

King Football

  I knew football has been the most popular sport in America for quite some time, but I hadn’t realized how far it has outstripped baseball until we went to the Applebee’s for dinner on Sunday night.

  There is no seat in the Marshalltown, Iowa Applebee’s in from which you can’t see at least one of the 2 dozen or so high definition televisions. We were seated in the table closest to the front door and there was a television 10 feet away from me that was tuned to NBC’s Sunday Night Football pregame show.

  I knew Game Six of the National League playoffs between the Cardinals and Giants was being played but when I looked around to find a TV that had the game on every set had the football pre-game show on. I know that the Applebee’s can have different stations on different TV’s but apparently no one at the Applebee’s wanted to see a playoff baseball game more than a football pregame show. I’d understand this if the baseball teams were from either coast but the game featured the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the 4 teams most popular among Iowans (along with the Cubs, Twins, and Royals).

  I didn’t ask anyone to change the station since I was just curious what the score was, but it got me thinking about how popular football is. I don’t watch nearly as much football as I used to, but I did see most of the Iowa State-Oklahoma State college game on Saturday afternoon, half of the Penn State-Iowa game on Saturday night, and on Sunday I watched a large part of the Jets-Patriots game.

  Football used to be the province of the weekend, with college games on Saturday and professional games on Sunday with a Monday Night game thrown in to allow the gamblers one last chance to break even for the weekend. Now there is hardly a day that doesn’t have some football on television. The NFL Network has a package of Thursday night pro games, while ESPN or FOX televise college games on almost all Thursdays and Friday nights and many Tuesday and Wednesdays.

  The football pre-game shows have become huge productions. NBC and ESPN have at least 6 talking heads apiece for their pro telecasts. It’s not enough to have all these broadcasters and ex-players sit behind desks and discuss the latest news or break down the upcoming game. They have to move around to a fake football field or a living room set while they continue to talk football in between the car and beer commercials. Then they move back behind their desks and continue talking. I can’t wait for some hotshot producer to decide that costume changes are needed for even more pre-game variety.

  I used to attribute the success of the NFL to the amount of money spend by people betting on the games. There is an estimated $50 million dollars bet in Nevada each week and millions and possibly billions more bet illegally. I’m not even counting the many football pick ‘em pools that are allow pools of co-workers that pool their money in-house and pick all the games without having to pay a cut to a gambling consortium. The NFL has strict rules forcing teams to provide standardized injury reports. It not only helps make sure that the opposing teams know who is going to play or not, but it provides a measure of assurance to the legions of gamblers that there is no inside information to be had and that their dollar aren’t at undue risk.

  If gambling was the initial impetus for pro football’s rise to the top of the sports heap, fantasy football has helped the game attain Tower of Babel status. In fantasy football, fans form leagues in which they pick virtual football teams. The players score points for their owner’s teams through statistical accomplishments. Fantasy football can give interest to even the most lopsided, dull game if a player in the game is on the roster of the fantasy team of a potential viewer (or their opponents). Fantasy football is generally played for money but the stakes can be as high or low as the participants wish. The real money in the billion dollar industry is made by the companies that dispense fantasy advice and provide league tracking in return for advertising eyeballs.

  Fantasy baseball came before fantasy football but has been overtaken in fantasy for many of the same reasons it has been overtaken in reality. Baseball teams play 6 days a week and each game takes between 3 and 6 hours to complete. To keep track of all the players and statistics for a fantasy baseball team is nearly a full time job. For a fan to watch all their favorite team’s games is at least a 20 hour commitment per week. It just doesn’t fit in with today’s busy life style and short attention spans. A fan can watch all 16 of their favorite football team’s games in around 60 hours over 4 months’ time. While managing fantasy football rosters can become a full time addiction, the statistics are easily understood and only get updated once a week. This allows amateur fans to feel like they can compete in their leagues against more experienced players.

  Football has never been as popular as the present time, but I see signs that the success of the sport may be sowing the seeds of its own downfall. The NFL is running out of product. It now has games on 5 networks (including its own NFL Network) 3 days a week. It puts on a regular season games once a year in London and has had exhibition games in Mexico, Japan, and Australia. Each team now gets a week off during the season which has expanded a 16 game schedule to 17 weeks of games. The league unsuccessfully tried to add 2 games to the schedule in the latest round of negotiations with the players union.

  Can the NFL continue its seemingly unstoppable growth? If the NFL has an untapped revenue stream, I don’t see it short of making the Super Bowl pay for view. There are new caps and sweatshirts to buy every year, each team has a day when they wear uniforms from seasons past that are available for purchase, most of the teams have brand new stadiums and games are on every TV network except ABC (which owns ESPN anyway).

  I think the NFL will soon make serious efforts to increase their inventory of games to sell to the public. I don’t know whether they will add more bye weeks to expand the schedule, add more teams, or just increase the schedule. There is money to be made and I doubt the NFL will be able to resist the temptation to dilute their product to get it. Will the NFL owners move too fast and dilute their product beyond recognition? I doubt it but there has been a large influx of new ownership in the NFL over the past 5 years. If a group of owners that have just paid a billion dollars or more for their teams decide to recoup their investment via expansion fees and increased television revenues for their games, the NFL could find itself a bloated shell of its current mighty self in short order.