The National Football League season kicks off tonight with a meeting of the past two Super Bowl champions – the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints. The teams are led by the past two Super Bowl MVPs, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
It is a mouth-watering matchup that highlights football's ascendance to the top of America's pro sports pyramid. Twenty-eight of last year’s 30 highest-rated TV programs were NFL games, and the league just signed a $1.9 billion deal with ESPN to broadcast Monday Night Football. That’s on top of media deals already worth $3 billion – enough to pay all the payrolls of the NFL’s 32 teams without any revenue at all from stadium ticket sales.
Yet those gaudy television numbers point to a curious challenge for pro football as it begins its new season. Owners are becoming increasingly worried that more fans are staying home with their high-definition TVs, premium football packages, and wireless Internet connections instead of heading to stadiums. Cable companies have made homes into virtual sports bars, with options to show more than one game at the same time on split screens and a channel that shows any game where a team is near the goal line.
Football fan Scott Miller, a bioenergy marketing consultant who lives in the San Fernando Valley, understands the pull to stay at home. “I like going to games for the atmosphere, but I do feel that I get a better spectator view and appreciation for the action when I watch broadcasts on TV.”
At the stadium, too, there are high prices for tickets, parking, food, and drinks. Combined with the tepid economy, the trends have led attendance at NFL games to decline slightly for three consecutive years – even as the popularity of the sport soars.
NFL team owners have responded by trying to make the at-game experience more enjoyable with more restaurants, wider corridors, better bathrooms, and luxury seats.
But the league is going further this year by directing all 32 clubs to display real-time fantasy football statistics at all home games. Fantasy football – in which fans build their own virtual teams from real players and compete based on their players' statistics – is a growing, $800 million industry, with 26 million players according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FTSA).
In addition, the NFL last year started FanVision, a partnership with 12 teams. The program includes a device that lets fans watch instant replays from multiple angles – including replays not offered on television or the in-stadium video screens. It also has a cheerleader cam, live fantasy-football updates, highlight reels, and features produced by the home team.
Yet some say the NFL's moves are going in the wrong direction.
“They are stepping on the gas pedals when their tires are in the mud,” says Garret Kramer, author of “Stillpower: the Inner Source of Athletic Excellence.” “When you start throwing in all these bells and whistles you just water down the experience. You are trying to trick the spectator into believing something more is going on. The more you do that the worse it gets.”
“It’s pure and they sell out over and over and over. What the NFL needs to do is go back and make it pure again,” says Mr. Kramer.
Still, there is no questioning the NFL's cultural clout in America. Simply put, “the NFL is the most powerful entertainment force in the American vernacular,” says Bob Boland, academic chair at the New York University Tisch Center for Sports Management.
The NFL has been very careful to craft its image while TV networks have invested heavily in making the NFL connection one of the most lucrative and steady partnerships in the history of TV, going back to the first contract with CBS in 1961.
“It has been amazing to see that football's popularity carries on in spite of labor unrest and some of the high-profile players being in legal trouble. It seems nothing can disrupt the sport's momentum,” says media theorist Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Indiana.
Despite baseball’s affectionate moniker as “the national pastime,” football long ago surpassed Major League Baseball in both ratings and revenue, says Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at the Walker School of Business at Webster University in St. Louis. He notes that each game is more important as one of 16 in the typical season, compared with 1 of 162 in baseball.
Noting that President Obama purposely scheduled his major address on job creation to a joint session of Congress to end before the game, Mr. Rishe says, “this shows, rightly or wrongly, that people care more about football than what the president has to say.”