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).
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.
This is the kind of pleasant surprise the NFL usually loves. Back in 2002, the league turned the first game of its regular season into the NFL Kickoff Game, complete with a pregame concert. The first events in 2002 and 2003 were planned as a boost for New York and Washington in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since 2004, however, it's been hosted by the previous year's Super Bowl champion (though the Baltimore Ravens had to play on the road last year to accommodate a Baltimore Orioles game).
It's a lot of fanfare, a lot of excitement and, since 2006, a whole lot of promotion by both the NFL and NBC. It's also usually more than four weeks after the Hall of Fame Game, which seems to have a whole lot of the marketing built in. The Bills and Giants have 2014 Hall of Fame inductees in Andre Reed and Michael Strahan, respectively. There are the stories of fellow inductees including Derrick Brooks, Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey and Aeneas Williams. There's Canton's stretch of NFL history in the early 1920s that includes two NFL championships for its Canton Bulldogs. There's the smallest NFL venue in the country in Fawcett Stadium, which was built in 1938, holds only 22,375 fans and is about to get a $10 million facelift.
Most importantly, there's the small fact that this is the first live NFL football that anyone's had a chance to watch in half a year. The NFL got 32 million people to tune into ESPN and the NFL Network for the first round of the NFL Draft in May and that was basically a lot of handshaking, cap adjusting, analysis and announcements. That event's audience grew 28% from 2012, and largely because the Draft was moved from April to May (with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel getting some credit for falling to the 22nd pick overall).
There's actual football being played at the Hall of Fame Game at a venue that ranks behind only Green Bay's Lambeau Field and Chicago's Soldier Field among the league's hallowed grounds. By failing to crank up its hype machine for the Hall of Fame game NFL is wasting an opportunity to draw more eyeballs with baseball in its dog days and college football inactive. NBC, meanwhile, is spending nearly $1 billion a year for its NFL rights and failing to get the most out of that bargain by keeping the Hall Of Fame Game a low-tier event.
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The NFL's fan base will turn out in droves for just about any football the league gives them after a six-month absence. The NFL and NBC need to stop treating the first game of the year -- yes, even a preseason game -- like a chore and start treating it like a celebration. Fans have spent all summer asking if football's back yet. The answer shouldn't be "Sort of."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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