The NFL released its 2014 schedule Wednesday night with a three-hour show on the NFL Network. “NFL Total Access: Schedule Release ‘14’’ did as it promised, breaking down the upcoming season in the time it takes to watch a National League baseball game despite the fact that fans could view the schedules of all 32 NFL teams online right at 8 p.m.
Given the league’s stellar ratings, you couldn’t blame them for trying to feed fans’ insatiable appetite for anything football, even as the NBA and NHL playoffs are in full swing and real football games are still months away. Nielsen’s year-end TV ratings show that NFL football accounted for 9 of the 10 most-watched television broadcasts in 2013. Super Boxl XLVIII was the most-watched program in U.S. television history, watched by an average of 111.5 million people. People watch the freaking Combine, for crying out loud. Why watch a bunch of college guys run around in their Nike compression shorts for 10 hours? In the words of the immortal George Costanza, “Because it’s on TV.’’
The NFL is betting people will keep watching its programming no matter what or when. In the latest example of the league doing what it damn well pleases, the NFL announced Wednesday it will now be able to flex games in and out of the Sunday Night Football slot starting in Week 5. Flex is a cute word for “make more money by grabbing more viewers’’, usually at the expense of ticket holders and anyone associated with the games who’d like to know what time to show up to work. Previously, the league could only shift teams in and out of Sunday night starting in Week 11.
It makes perfect business sense, of course, for the NFL to put the best teams on prime time televison for more eyes to see. More eyes mean more advertising dollars and larger future television contracts. The New England Patriots play five night games on national television in 2014. Expect the Denver game on Nov. 2, listed for 4:25 p.m., to be flexed into Sunday night if both teams start the season as everyone expects they will. Other Pats games could be moved as well.
So what’s the issue? Isn’t more people seeing the best games a good thing? It certainly is for the league, which is more popular than ever. But the league’s increased attention on television revenue makes it increasingly difficult to attend games in person. What if a Patriots fan wants to attend the Sun. Nov. 30 game at Green Bay, scheduled for 4:25 p.m., but he or she has to be back for work Monday? If that game gets flexed to Sunday night, that fan is out of luck. Goodbye, employment, hello airline change fees. This example is made even more practical with the game at the Jets on Dec. 1, scheduled for 1 p.m. It’s easy to attend an afternoon game in New Jersey and get back to Boston at a reasonable hour, but not so much if that game ends at 1:30 in the morning.
This is all working out swimmingly for the NFL, which has used its stellar ratings to secure a deal with CBS to carry Thursday Night Football this season. For part of one season of Thursday games, CBS reportedly paid at least $250 million. Thursday games featured on the NFL Network later in the season include such stellar matchups as Tampa Bay-Atlanta, Browns-Bengals, and Bills-Dolphins. Woof.
The weekly Thursday games join Sunday and Monday night broadcasts throughout the season. Returning this season in Week 16 are two Saturday night games. There’s also serious talk of expanding the playoffs to add two more teams. Enough, already?
Mark Cuban certainly thinks so. The owner of the Dallas Mavericks went off on his rival league in March. From ESPNDallas.com:
"I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion," Cuban said. "I'm just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they're getting hoggy. Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I'm just telling you, when you've got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That's rule No. 1 of business."
With a continued emphasis on television revenue , it’s more timely than ever to ask whether Cuban will be proven right.