Take a bold time: Americans enjoy watching football. I like a lot.
For all the pearly glee about how student-athletes will pay for the college game, despite strong statements that social justice messages will blow up the NFL, the numbers in 2022 tell a very different story. The further away we move from the generational disruption of the pandemic, the clearer it becomes that American sports fans prefer soccer over any other television option, let alone any other sport, by a wide margin.
As the leading phrases say, “Americans love football” ranks somewhere between the blinding, inconspicuous truth, and the truth of the Sherlock Angel. However, it is the degree of that love that will drive the entire broadcast and calendar deals going forward.
Latest data point: Georgia dooms Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, which attracted 13 million viewers, is the most-watched college football game of the year. It beat every World Series game, including Game Six later that night, which drew 12.5 million viewers. (The rival college football game, a tense match between LSU-Alabama, drew 7.5 million viewers while broadcasting on ESPN; the World Series was televised.)
Baseball has long since given up fighting against the NFL. With an extended playoff looming, the college release is now taking its toll, and the evidence is clear: Even in the age of NIL, when players finally receive payouts above the plate, interest in the college game continues to rise. There aren’t a lot of truisms in broadcasting that have survived the age of broadcasting, but there is the following: live sports still dominate, and football rules all live sports.
Baseball and golf surrender to football
Football’s dominance is so universal that some other sports have decided that the best option is simply to avoid competition altogether. Golf, for example, has completely reworked its schedule so that its season ends on the Labor Day holiday, before the NFL begins.
By contrast, NASCAR continues to run its playoff games completely into the football season, competing on Saturday nights with college football and Sundays with the pro game. Last weekend’s championship race attracted 3.2 million viewers, almost the same as last season National attention from Ross Chastain’s bold “Hill Mellon” movement last week. Although the race was broadcast on NBC, its ending faded head on Tom Brady Play the Super Bowl Champion Rams. Even one of the biggest names in NASCAR is conceding defeat.
Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most famous driver, said in September: “I see no reason to compete against NFL football when that starts. In my opinion, this is not a battle we will ever win.”
Baseball finally threw the white flag earlier this year, deciding to play on Friday and Saturday and leave on Sunday for the NFL. It was the first time since the entire World Series began broadcasting in 1947 that baseball gave up on Sunday night, but some fights you just can’t win.
(There was a time when the NFL actually halted its Sunday night programming to give the stage to baseball. This absurdity ceased around 2010, when The Shield realized that giving away the week’s most valuable broadcasting real estate was a foolish endeavor.)
The future looks brighter… for football
Down the line, the football hammer will only increase in the fall. An expanded 12-team playoff might reduce the numbers for a regular season game like Georgia-Tennessee – both schools will be locked to a 12-team playoff this year – but with the addition of eight (!) Georgia-Tenn. numbers, more than offset any regular season losses.
If there is a speed bump, it is as follows: Amazon’s NFL numbers didn’t quite light up the streaming world. After a strong start, the game has struggled to break the 10 million viewer mark in recent weeks, and the low numbers are driving down ratings for the NFL as a whole. within eight weeks, Sports Business Journal Notes, the NFL averaged 15.7 million viewers per game, down from 16.5 million at the same point last year. (That 2021 figure was the NFL’s best by eight games since 2015, the last season before the protest.)
But the NFL is playing a long game with Amazon. Regular viewers and old-school NFL fans resent Amazon’s ever-increasing presence in the league – but then there was a time when we never imagined that streaming would replace going to Blockbuster and trying to find an available VCR for “Jurassic Park” too. In three years, going to Amazon to watch a soccer game will be as easy and familiar as going to Netflix for original movies now. In addition, the group of viewers moving to a new format and some perplexing games (Chicago-Washington, Arizona-New Orleans) certainly did not help.
Giant football rankings are the Rorschach blot. You can take them as you wish. Football in general, with its relative rarity, horizontal shape and pace of play, is ideally designed for casual spectators, fantasy players and bookmakers. The NFL’s focus on The Shield Above All means that the outside drama that often consumes other leagues — hey, the NBA — is thwarted in favor of what happens on Sunday. (In the case of things like Deshaun Watson or the terrifying leaders’ workplace, that’s not a positive. However, it is a fact.)
College football is now, for all intents and purposes, an NFL with a trumpet division and an unpaid workforce. Mining areas lack the professional franchises of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), while the Big Ten is tapping into the traditional midwest football sentiment. Playing the college game on those most vulnerable and lucrative sensations—nostalgia, real or imagined—and the attraction of the heart is more lucrative than the attraction of the mind.
In between, the NFL and college football now have weekends, and most days of the week, six months out of the year. Other sports and other fans face a stark choice: get out of the way or settle on the scraps.
Connect with Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at jaybusbee.