Another Massive Football Season

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Last year at this time I confidently predicted that our tolerance for violence in football had reached a tipping point and that this would have serious consequences for the television industry, which has become addicted to football-related programming.

This prediction may yet come true, but it sure didn’t happen this year. Another season of football is over and the sport is as popular as ever. Sunday’s Super Bowl attracted 114.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched program of all time. Obviously, TV is more addicted to football than it’s ever been.

Not that football has become any less violent — not by a long shot. The concussion issue is as serious as ever, and there are a lot of fans, myself included, who grimace whenever a wide receiver gets demolished by a linebacker.

As if the concussion issue wasn’t bad enough, the NFL became embroiled in other violence-related controversies last season — first when it bungled the penalty for former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice, who was convicted of knocking out his then-fiancée, and then when it suspended Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson, who was convicted of child abuse.

The ensuing national uproar over these cases, and the League’s handling of them, did nothing to diminish football’s popularity, however. Perversely, the debate spawned by these scandals seemed to further cement the sport’s cultural domination. Football is now so important that the alleged under-inflation of balls used in the AFC championship game was considered newsworthy enough to lead the national newscasts for several days. At least NBC, which aired the Super Bowl this year, had a bottom-line motivation to hype the scandal in advance of the game, but what excuse did the other networks have?

Television and professional football have been inextricably linked since the 1950s, when they both began to force themselves on the nation’s consciousness. Since then, football has become the perfect TV sport. There are clear identifiable protagonists (the quarterbacks); there’s plenty of action, but also lots of time between plays to discuss and replay what we just saw; the games are primarily limited to the weekend, so each game is an event; and almost every game lasts a dependable three hours: just enough time to hold a viewer’s attention.

More than in any other sport, the actual attendees are essentially props for the real audience; indeed, anyone who has ever attended a game in person and sat through all the pointless “official’s timeouts” has noticed that game time is not managed for the benefit of the in-stadium audience but in order to maximize television advertising for home viewers.

Something that’s become increasingly evident over the years is that the Internet and television are not in conflict with each other, but actually working hand-in-glove to drive engagement with each other. This is especially apparent with football. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have all increased interest in televised games. So too have the vast array of podcasts now available to any sports enthusiast, and nontraditional news sources like DeadSpin and Grantland. And then there’s the phenomenon of Fantasy Football, which would not have been possible on this scale without the Internet.

We’ve gotten to the point where even the NFL Draft, arguably one of the least TV-friendly ceremonies in history, is now a major television event. Is the appetite for football endless? Apparently.

A recent Bloomberg study found that half of parents don’t want their sons to play football because of the danger of brain injuries. But the news about concussions coupled with the violent tendencies of the players hasn’t made a dent in the sport’s overall popularity. I’m not sure that the tipping point is any closer now than it was a year ago.

It’s probably not going to be our yet-to-be-tapped inner morality that pushes football over the edge. It’s more likely to be the greed of the sports industry itself. Sports fans are immensely valuable to television because 1) they tend to be men, a difficult demographic to reach on TV; and 2) they watch the programming (and hence the commercials) live. Sports programming is the single largest expense in the monthly cable bill. The Atlantic estimates that half of all cable subscriber fees go to channels that primarily offer sports. And that number would be even higher if the sports component of the retransmission consent payments made to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were included.

I haven’t seen any data to prove this, but I believe there are many households that would drop cable altogether if not for sports, particularly football. According to the law of supply and demand, there will come a time, though, when the ever-increasing costs of cable, driven by the greed of the leagues, will push more consumers to cut the cord — or discourage Millennials from signing up in the first place. We’ve already seen the first chink in the armor with the unveiling of Dish’s Sling TV, which will give consumers access to a small group of cable channels — including the all-important ESPN — via the Internet instead of the cable wire. Could sports fans stand to have access to only one sports channel?  Maybe if they were under enough financial pressure.

Until then, football reigns supreme. All Hail Tom Brady.

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