If the NFL spent as much time addressing the problem of decreased ratings as it does coming up with explanations for why things aren’t as bad as they seem (are), the problem may be fixed by now.
But the problem lingers, and FOX CEO James Murdoch has offered a theory regarding its cause.
“There’s a question mark for the NFL, which is just to think hard about how they’re licensing,” Murdoch said at the Paley International Council Summit in New York, via Jason Lynch of AdWeek.com. “So I do think the proliferation of Thursday availability — and the proliferation of football generally — does mean that you’re asking a lot from customers to watch Thursday. And then they watch a lot more college football games on Saturdays, and then on Sundays, and then on Monday Night Football, etc. It’s a lot. So I do think that preserving the scarcity value of those events and that audience is something that is worth thinking about.”
It’s definitely worth thinking about, even if the NFL at this point would never actually decrease the number of weekly viewing windows. Last year, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported that the league would be ditching the 9:30 a.m. ET London games, due to concerns with possible oversaturation. Then came the schedule, and three of the four London games this year were set to begin at 9:30 a.m. ET.
In response to Murdoch’s, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart resorted to his political background and focused on not the message but the messenger. Via Daniel Kaplan of SportsBusiness Journal, Lockhart pointed out to reporters during a Wednesday media briefing that Murdoch’s network currently doesn’t have rights to Thursday night.
“That may be one of the reasons why he pointed to Thursday night,” Lockhart said.
Or maybe, just maybe, Murdoch is legitimately concerned about the ratings issue, and the absence of a vested interest in Thursday Night Football allowed him to flash a little Corker-Flake independence.
Lockhart also disagreed with the substance of Murdoch’s assessment.
“We are not oversaturated, though we will always look at that,” Lockhart said.
It’s possible that a stew of factors and challenges have combined to impact ratings, and that the absence of scarcity now makes it harder to get people to flock to the games.
As the NFL grew into the juggernaut it became in the ’80s, the windows consisted of 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, and Monday night. Thursday football happened only on Thanksgiving and during the World Series, because the NFL didn’t want to pit Monday Night Football against the Fall Classic (amazingly, in hindsight).
Then came Sunday Night Football and NFL Sunday Ticket and Thursday Night Football and RedZone and Sunday mornings from London and NFL football is now everywhere. Likewise, college football (which in the ’70s was an even more rare commodity than NFL football) is everywhere — and the sheer volume of college games creates a greater raw number of exciting contests than the NFL has to offer.
As of two years ago, however, the NFL’s numbers were fine. Something has happened in the last two years, and the NFL needs to do something about it other than act like something isn’t wrong.