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Remember when sports on television were doomed? Yeah, me neither.
NFL proves live, unscripted programming on free-to-air TV still delivers big audiences
For years, even decades, we have been told sports on television are in trouble. First, it was cable television that was going to kill free sports on TV. Then it was the high rights fees that leagues were seeking, making sports on TV only available for the wealthy. Or we were told too many sports on TV would force consumers to choose, fragmenting ratings.
Guess what? None of this has happened. In fact, last weekend’s Super Wild Card Weekend is proof that, with the right approach, none of it will occur. Adding 50% more inventory of games and spreading out those broadcasts across three days, instead of two, could not have worked out more handsomely for the league and its broadcast partners.
First, the weather across much of the United States this past weekend was frightful, creating an environment conducive to staying home and watching football. I was cold just watching the New England-Buffalo game, to say nothing of the actual snow flurries flying outside my window in Arkansas.
But perhaps more important than the weather’s cooperation was that the NFL did not seek to exile these first round games to poorly distributed cable networks the way the MLB does with its wild card matchups. Instead, the NFL stacked these on its free-to-air broadcast partners. I watched the games on my television hooked up to a digital antenna. No MVPD or vMVPD subscription needed. Just a $50 digital antenna, some wool socks, and a heaping plate of warm comfort food.
This past weekend’s games garnered the following ratings, according to sportsmediawatch.com.
Raiders-Bengals, Saturday afternoon, NBC, 14.2 rating, 27.70M viewers
Patriots-Bills, Saturday evening, CBS, 13.2 rating, 26.37M viewers
Eagles-Buccaneers, Sunday early afternoon, FOX, 16.0 rating, 30.37M viewers
49ers-Cowboys, Sunday late afternoon, CBS, 20.7 rating, 41.50M viewers
Steelers-Chiefs, Sunday evening, NBC, 14.7 rating, 28.94M viewers
Cardinals-Rams, Monday night, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2, 12.6 rating, 23.50M viewers
These numbers tell us two things. Free-to-air television is not dead. And, live, unscripted programming, particularly the NFL, delivers big audiences for networks, and their advertisers. This weekend’s games should deliver more of the same. What’s more fun than watching, from the comfort of a sofa, an NFL playoff game under the lights, with wind chills near zero, on the frozen tundra of Lam-beau Field?
Ten days after the New York Times published a story with a headline indicating cable television is going the way of the landline (it is, by the way), the NFL showed how to create a winning formula of live events on free-to-air television. I know many of the people who watched last weekend’s NFL games did so not via a digital antenna like me, but through some type of MVPD. But if cable goes the way of the landline, particularly as other content providers such as Netflix continue to raise rates, live sports on free-to-air television will not suffer (Hello, Rob Manfred!).
The NFL is single-handedly killing the narrative that sports are doomed if the cable bundle goes away. Shira Ovide, the Times’ author, lazily presented a 2016 Deadspin article as evidence sports was in trouble if the cable bundle went away. She somehow missed the NFL’s announcement in March 2021 that it sold its rights for $113,000,000,000. Sports are not in trouble.
Need empirical evidence the NFL is crushing it? How about Anthony Crupi’s report for Sportico that three in four of the most watched television broadcasts of 2021 were NFL games? NBC can’t be loving the fact its Olympic coverage did not crack the top 40. This year’s Super Bowl on February 13 falls right in the middle of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Good luck, Peacock.
At a time when our video options all seem to have their pluses (e.g. Paramount+, Apple+, Disney+), the NFL is thriving with a minus: minus a cable subscription.