It is undeniable how poor NFL primetime is performing in season 2016 – there is simply no way around it. People are turning the channel and fans aren’t always showing up in their tens of thousands during the marquee time slot. But how bad is it, and more importantly, what can be done to arrest the slide?
The fixtures that fall into this category are the 3 pillars of primetime – Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football and Thursday Night Football. SB Nation reports that the first 5 weeks of this NFL campaign has seen those matches down 10% on last season for television viewers and glancing towards the rest of the fixtures, those stats won’t be getting healthier anytime soon.
Outlining that the figures are “lousy,” executives have pinned the blame on a “confluence of events.” This perfect storm would include the presidential election which is soaking up a sizeable chunk of the media’s attention, a Major League Baseball season that includes two fairytale journeys in the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs who are on track for one of the most anticipated World Series clashes in a generation, as well as a string of injuries, suspensions and retirements from the biggest names in the game.
But it would be easy to portion blame to external factors and avoid the problem head on. The fact of the matter is the NFL has not helped themselves in any shape or form, creating a litany of questionable fixtures. It all started in Week 1 when Monday Night Football showcased the San Francisco 49ers shutting out the LA Rams 28-0 in front of a sparse, largely disinterested crowd and these games have stalled ever since.
Aside from the New York Jets one-and-only 37-31 win of the season away to the Buffalo Bills during Thursday Night Football in Week 2, the majority of primetime games have either been uncompetitive, dull or riddled with errors and stoppages. ESPN explained that the Jets most recent defeat on the road to the Arizona Cardinals during Monday Night Football saw a total of 19 penalties with 13 of them coming in the first half alone! Even the officials would be getting bored to tears by that point.
Rock bottom appeared to happen before our very eyes in Week 5’s Monday Night Football when the once scintillating Carolina Panthers fumbled and punted their way to a horrific 17-14 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a result that was as poor for the mistakes as it was for the spectacle. Only Roberto Aguayo’s continual misses at goal provided any interest until he ironically ended up as the match winner.
This nadir was predicted some time ago by billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. USA Today published a transcript of an interview the outspoken entrepreneur gave to ESPN back in 2014 and he argued that the “more is more” approach would be overkill. The consequences of squeezing the sport for all it is worth has a cost to pay.
“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” began Cuban. “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.
“They’re trying to take over every night of TV,” Cuban said. “Initially, it’ll be, ‘Yeah, they’re the biggest-rating thing that there is.’ OK, Thursday, that’s great, regardless of whether it impacts (the NBA) during that period when we cross over. Then if it gets Saturday, now you’re impacting colleges. Now it’s on four days a week.
“It’s all football. At some point, the people get sick of it.”
But as valid or otherwise as Cuban’s assertion is, these three slots are not going away anytime soon. Can a solution be found to resuscitate primetime before the audience becomes accustomed to finding something different to do during the week? Maybe we can take the example of competing codes as case studies.
Spanish soccer’s La Liga reserves the right to delay kick off dates and times according to what they believe will be the most beneficial to television. If Barcelona for example are going toe-for-toe for the title against Real Madrid, then in the lead up the executives can ensure they are given prime billing on the box. Should one team be runaway leaders and the interest lies in those qualifying for Champions League positions, then they will be given preference.
The people that directly suffer from a flexible schedule is the paying fans that go to the ground – the real stakeholders of the sport. Without knowing when a game will be played until a few weeks beforehand, supporters are left at the last minute to organise flights and accommodation if there is significant travel involved. And with a country as vast as the United States – that is a big problem.
Perhaps in the NFL’s example, a game where so much emphasis is placed on the wins vs loss ratio, the season can be cut into segments of 5 games where schedulers can reassess at different points in the campaign how teams are traveling and how likely or otherwise they are to be in playoff contention. If an outfit fails to win a minimum of 2 or 3 out of their opening 5 clashes, then they are disqualified from taking the field under lights. If they improve in their next segment and are back in the fold, they are put in the hat and they are box office material once more.
This would obviously affect franchises like the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans who continue to battle for traction, but they rarely make primetime as things stand now and their issues go way beyond a lack of coverage. Rather than seeing a 1-4 New York Jets play on Monday Night Football, give a resurgent Oakland Raiders or Baltimore Ravens the opportunity to make their mark and reward them for their efforts.
This solution would add a different layer of competition to the mix and allow the global and domestic viewers a chance to witness the best games of the NFL in the most popular time slots. As opposed to seeing the most eye-catching fixtures lost amongst a host of simultaneous football on NFL Redzone, the coverage reserves the best for the best. As things stand, the only thing refreshing about primetime football is the introduction of Twitter streaming.
What do you think? Does NFL primetime need a shake up? Hit us up in the comments below and remember to give our friends at In The Pocket a follow and listen for Episode 12 where we weigh in on #HelmetGate.
Until next week.