The recent travails of the American economy have affected just about everyone. But when it comes to the country's interest in the National Football League, people are simply switching allegiances from out-of-pocket to stay-at-home. According to a report by Mark Maske of the Washington Post, television ratings for NFL games are at their highest in 20 years, with an average of 17.2 million viewers watching each game. Those numbers are up 15 percent from last season. Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft agree that the ratings spike is due to a desire of those whose wallets are lighter these days to stay closer to home.
"I think people are making conscious decisions that their entertainment dollars are best spent watching NFL games free on their television sets on Sunday afternoon and Sunday night and Monday night," Pilson said in the article. Another theory is that most of the NFL's worst teams, like the Chiefs, Rams, and Titans, are in smaller markets.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledges the trend. "Since we continue to be available on free television, our fans can gather around the television sets rather than pursuing other opportunities that are more costly." One wonders if Goodell is tipping his hand when it comes to the thought of a pay-per-view model with that remark -- certainly if this continues and small-market teams struggle in the wake of half-empty stadiums (the Jacksonville Jaguars will suffer their fourth TV blackout this season when they face the Chiefs on Sunday), a pay model might be thrown out there in continued CBA discussions as a way to keep the revenue-sharing model going. Overall, NFL attendance is down about two percent from last year according to Maske's article, but that's far more indicative of those small-market struggles than it is a ding on teams like the Cowboys, Giants, Jets, Redskins, Broncos and Seahawks, who have been selling out their stadiums as a near-automatic proposition.
On the verge of a CBA meltdown, an uncapped year, a possible lockout, and a very different business model, the NFL will have to find new ways to draw viewers and make money from that viewership. As it has many times before, television may be pro football's saving grace.