My 2 Cents

When the history of the modern U.S. TV broadcast network is written, the extent of the failure of the American TV networks to find a way to popularize football (soccer for them) in the U.S. will finally be revealed. Like failed Wall Street-ers, failed American broadcast executives will be rewarded with rich severance packages and celebrated by NATPE as innovators, futurists and even geniuses. But I also envision someone who, in 2013 at the 10th annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at NATPE, will brashly point out how some departed U.S. executive receiving the award had contributed to the U.S. broadcasting sector’s demise due to the executive rejection of football coverage. This shortsightedness caused the loss of:

  • Soccer moms: A suburban upscale mother of young children. More than 3.1 million children are registered with U.S. Youth Soccer, compared with 350,000 kids with USA Hockey.
  • Hispanics: Over 14 percent of the U.S. population. 
  • New immigrants: About 1.5 million of non-Hispanics a year. It is estimated that in the next 20 years one-third of the U.S. population (or 103 million people) will be foreign-born.
  • Young viewers: Currently, young people under the age of 20 represent 28 percent of the U.S. population and football is much more popular than American football among youths up to the age of 13.

Most sports popular outside the U.S. are not popular in America because its Anglo TV network execs have yet to figure out how to insert commercials into prolonged live action. On the other hand, American football and baseball are perfect for U.S. television. Their long, natural pauses are ideal for commercial breaks. 

Football, on the other hand, is dynamic, fast-paced and boasts continuous action. The problem, alas, exists only with the American Anglo broadcasters, since Hispanics are okay with it, while the whole world –– including other English-speaking nations outside the U.S. –– has been able to capitalize on it.

In terms of viewers the most popular games and sports on U.S. TV are: 1) American Football, 2) Baseball, 3) Basketball, 4) Football (mostly on Spanish-language stations), 5) Hockey (ice hockey is popular mostly in the northeast), 6) Golf, 7) Tennis, 8) Stock auto racing (NASCAR), 9) Poker and, 10) Boxing (well liked especially as a gambling event).

This past February, the U.S.’s most popular “game,” the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl (or championship final), recorded 78.9 million U.S. viewers (or 29.9 ratings). It was much lower than last year, but still a good number. The NFL will actually adjust the season because of high TV ratings prospects. The most watched 2008 NBA (basketball) finals pulled in a 10.7 rating. The highest rated game of the 2008 World Series (baseball’s final games are grandiosely called “world” even though they only include the U.S. and Canada) garnered only a 10.4 rating. Last year’s NASCAR Atlanta 500 race pulled in a 4.8 rating. On the other hand, the 2008 NHL (hockey) finals (the Stanley Cup) got a meager 4.4 rating.

Together, four U.S. leagues  (NFL, NBA, NHL and, for baseball, MLB) generate about $20 billion a year in revenues. With broadcast contracts continuing for several years, much of that revenue is guaranteed, thus perpetrating this tunnel vision mentality, which is mortgaging the future of sports on television.

The “vision” problem is not limited to broadcasting. U.S. newspapers, too, are fighting a survival battle with bows and arrows in an era of night-vision .50 gunners.

Take the embattled New York Times and Los Angeles Times, for example. Like me, some of the other 2.9 million foreign-born New York City and 3.6 million foreign-born Los Angeles residents (both constituting 36 percent of the total city population) could be buying those newspapers to read about sports. Both dailies have a “sports” section, but what do they feature? American football, baseball and golf! Sports? At the most they can be considered “games” by sports purists. Now, if I were a fan of those “games,” I surely would not be buying the Times, but rather “real” game papers such as the New York Post, the New York Daily News or the L.A. Daily News. Let’s now look at some other statistics to make sense of the extent of the U.S. broadcasters’ failure. The Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that in the world there are 250 million football players and over 1.3 billion people following football. Some 28 billion viewers follow key tournaments such as the World Cup finals. There are more than 200 nations registered with FIFA (the world’s football federation), which is more than the number of countries that belong to the U.N.

It has been said that the television rights to professional American football are the most lucrative (and most expensive) rights of any sport and game available. In fact, it was television that brought these “games” into prominence in the U.S. NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on U.S. television, and the fortunes of entire networks have “rested” on owning NFL broadcasting rights. Now, if U.S. broadcasters would be running their networks realistically, looking at the present with an eye to the future, football would certainly be their best bet for survival.

Dom Serafini