According to the NFL, the average game this season drew 17.6 million viewers. Also, 205 million Americans watched at least one NFL game. That's 70% of all potential TV viewers in the U.S. But even those figures don't sufficiently explain how big of a draw football is. For that, you'd have to look to this year's late-afternoon Thanksgiving matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders. Despite matching up a 4-7 Oakland squad against somewhat less mediocre 6-5 Dallas and providing less excitement in Dallas' 31-24 win than Selena Gomez offered during the halftime show, the game still drew a season-high 31.7 million viewers. It did so for three big reasons: It was on, it was aired on a holiday right before or between dinner courses and it was football.
When the U.S. audience is splintered into niches and can't seem to agree on anything, football is the closest it comes to a consensus. Sponsors and broadcasters know it, and they realize there's no other annual television event in the U.S. they can count on to reach that number of impressionable viewers. The NFL is a high-priced, one-stop shop, but it's also a resource its sponsors depend on. They need what the NFL offers and can't afford to give it up and let a competitor swoop in.
Unless tastes or options change, sponsors have little choice but to pay for sponsorship rights and keep paying if they want to make sure they're getting the most audience for their money. Broadcast partners, meanwhile, don't want to lose the ratings and ad money the NFL brings or relinquish the rights of a cable, satellite or -- worse -- online competitor that can use it to build their own brand. They've already seen that the NFL has no qualms about switching games to Thursday nights, airing them on the league's own network and keeping the profits for itself. There's no reason to rock the boat and make them angry.
But they, and their fan customers, are going to have to realize that blackouts and other NFL restrictions are the price they pay for their allegiance and addiction. If you want to watch the games and want to sell to the fans, you're going to have to play by the owners' rules. As long as there's demand, that rulebook reserves the owners' right to pick up their ball and go home whenever they please.
Good luck convincing them otherwise.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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