The NFL Is Fumbling Its Hall of Fame Game

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Football fans await the first NFL game of the year the way kids who believe in Santa Claus look forward to Christmas. The league treats it like the tax deadline.

When the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills line up for the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday in Canton, Ohio, it will be the first time fans have seen NFL football since the Seattle Seahawks blew out the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in New Jersey about six months ago. In the interim, the average 17.8 million fans who tuned into NFL games last fall couldn't muster similar enthusiasm for National Basketball Association matchups (1.4 million per game), Major League Baseball games (690,000 per game) or National Hockey League faceoffs (500,000 per game).

Even when fans could be bothered, the average 17.7 million who watched the NBA Finals was about half the audience the NFL drew for each of its conference finals. In perhaps the most grievous insult to their intelligence, they listened to soccer fans tell them that global “football” was better not only because the U.S. team averaged 18.3 million viewers for their World Cup matches, but because the World Cup final drew a U.S.-record 29.2 million viewers. Again, did they forget that the NFC Championship alone drew 55.6 million viewers earlier this year? Or that the Super Bowl drew 111.5 million viewers?

This is a league that 205 million unique U.S. viewers tuned into at some point last fall. It's one that 80% of U.S. television households had on their screens for at least some small span of time in 2013. Surely the NFL and its broadcast partners at NBC (a subsidiary of Comcast (CMCSA)) would treat its first game of 2013 with the excitement it deserves.

Don't count on it. In 2012, after a league lockout scrubbed the 2011 Hall of Fame Game, the Summer Olympics in London relegated that year's matchup in Canton to the NFL Network. Only 1.9 million people watched the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals play, which is about equal to the audience NBC draws for its better English Premier League soccer matchups on Saturday mornings.

Last year, when NBC finally freed up some time in its busy schedule, the Hall of Fame Game surprised everyone by drawing 10.1 million viewers for its matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. That's slightly smaller than the audience of 11.7 million that watched the Pro Bowl this year, but it's still bigger than any other sport's regular season viewership. After drawing 5.8 million viewers per game for the Stanley Cup Finals this year, the NHL certainly wouldn't mind having Hall of Fame Game viewers show up for the biggest games on the hockey calendar.

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