Why Television Can’t Let The National Football League Die

Yesterday, Travis reported on Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard’s prediction that in 30 years, the National Football League will die because making necessary changes to improve the safety of the game will produce a sport that no one wants to watch. I think both that scenario and the one that Travis himself lays out are not unrealistic. But it’s also worth remembering that the NFL’s life or death won’t happen in a closed surgical theater. There are people other than the players and owners, and in college, the athletics programs and fundraising departments, with a vested interest in keeping football alive and immensely popular.

Significant among those interests? Broadcast television and ESPN. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the League is touting the performance of football on television. 55 percent of the television broadcasts since September 1, 2010, that averaged at least 20 million viewers were of NFL football games, or 135 out of 247 broadcasts. The next-closest program? American Idol, with 39 broadcasts, followed by the London Olympics, with 18. The first scripted program on the list is NCIS, with 11 broadcasts that hit 20 million. There’s no wonder broadcast nets pay big for the games they air: Sunday Night Football is part of what’s helped NBC rebound from fourth place to first in the ratings.

Some of that’s an indication of the increasing weakness of broadcast television, which has had a tremendously difficult time launching scripted programming that finds an audience anywhere near that large, and which has seen the numbers on big reality programs, like Idol and Dancing With The Stars decline. But that weakness means the value of football is two-fold. Football broadcasts prop up television’s advertising revenue model. And they provide a potential launching platform for new programming. That’s one of the reasons the Super Bowl rotates from network to network every year: it’s such a critically important platform for showcasing existing programming to one of the largest audiences that assembles in front of the television anymore.

And that’s just on broadcast: football’s even more important to both cable networks and the cable business model. People who oppose cable bundling frequently complain about the price of sports channels, but access to lots and lots of football is one of the reasons sports make cable seem like a good deal for the more than 100 million American households who subscribe to it. The death of football through formal dismantlement or a rising disinterest and distaste would make bundled cable television seem less valuable.

Television, in other words, badly needs the NFL to stay healthy. What that means the industry can, and will, do remains an open question. But football and television’s futures are deeply intertwined, and at a time when the content television is creating for itself is having trouble finding an audience, those ties are tighter than ever.