Monday, September 22, 2014

The Living Room Sport

Roger Goodell made it very clear very early in his press conference last Friday that he was going to say nothing of substance or note. In response, I began clicking the remote to fund something else to watch on TV. There wasn't anything else.

I lost count of the number of channels on my cable system broadcasting Goodell live when it went over a dozen. There were all of ESPN's channels and Fox Sports' two channels, of course. There were all four cable news channels. Then there were all of the local network station channels. There were NESN, NECS and NECN. Goodell's visage beamed forth from Bloomberg and CNBC right above the stock ticker.

I quit searching after those two. Absurdity is like anything else. It can't come in a higher sum than infinity. Was the Commissioner of the National Football League going to start opining on the Alibaba IPO?

No one would deny that Goodell's presser was news. The twin issues of domestic violence committed by pro football players and the NFL's institutionally inept and corrupt reaction to those crimes are a big story, nor just in sports, either. But that big? More channels on my cable system broadcast Goodell's words than broadcast the previous week's announcement by the President of the United States that the country was entering another war.

Pro football is the country's most popular sport. But the popularity of sports, while great, have limits. Roughly 15-20 million people watch an average NFL national Sunday broadcast. That means that roughly 290 to 295 million Americans are doing something else at the same time. Even the Super Bowl, the biggest TV show of all, gets a rating in the 40s, meaning more than half of all television sets in the U.S. aren't tuned into it.

Those otherwise occupied Americans, call them the More Fulfilled Lives Majority, were not thought of when CNBC, whose audience struggles to reach one million in the daytime, went live to Goodell on Friday afternoon. Oddly, neither were the 15-20 million dependable NFL viewers -- except as a revenue stream. No, the broadcast and cable networks treated Goodell as the biggest news in a big and busy world because what he had to say was of intense interest to the handful of mass media conglomerates that own them all. Pro football is more important to television the business than to television viewers and was treated accordingly.

In the always uncertain world of show business, the regular habits of NFL television viewers are a comforting source of reliable profits. They are the last surviving remnant of the 20th century media universe, an old-fashioned audience that runes in to watch the program when it's scheduled and is even less likely to change channels during commercials.  They're also mostly guys, a good thing if one is selling beer, wealth management services or pickup trucks.

An overheated column in "The Wall Street Journal" when the Ray Rice debacle got rolling a few weeks ago posited that the very business model of television could collapse if that reliable NFL audience because as fickle as ordinary television viewers have become. This is nonsense. The pro football season is only five months long. Somehow Comcast's quarterly reports hold up during the pigskin free majority of the fiscal year.

There is no denying, however, that within the TV business, where paranoia is a certifiable skill, any threat to the reliable revenue provided pro football audiences is seen as an existential one. And it doesn't take paranoia, only common sense, to see that close association with an organization becoming notorious for toleration of domestic violence is problematic for television companies, who spend most of their programming time attempting to attract women viewers.

The "NFL In Crisis" story is a perfect closed feedback loop within the television industry, almost identical to how very bad weather in New York City is a bigger story than very bad weather anywhere else because that's where television news executives go to work. The league's miseries matter so much to TV decision makers they cannot imagine they might not matter that much to the public. If you get your news from TV, which I don't advise, be prepared to have a lot more Goodell crammed down your throat in the weeks to come.

To the public, what's happened in the NFL in the past month or so has been distressing. But even the most avid pro football fan knows their favorite pastime is in the end a sideshow.

To the audience, a sideshow is a diversion which can be taken or left alone as daily life permits. To the carnival barker, the sideshow is life itself.


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