As we move into Super Bowl week—Denver Broncos over the Carolina Panthers, you can take that to the bank or your bookie—it's worth considering how much the future of television hinges on football, most particularly the NFL.
It's no secret that, thanks to technology, the only thing keeping Americans tethered to their cable or satellite companies is live sporting events. But how long can cable, and television as we know it, cling to this final vestige of the way things used to be, before its tidy racket is sacked?
According to people who are paid to figure out such things, 2022 is the apocalypse. That's the perspective I got from Variety's savvy television and media reporter Brian Steinberg, who's (curiously) never written such a thing himself, but has permitted me to steal his opinion.
December 2022 is the end of the current NFL contract with the television networks: NBC, Fox, CBS and the league's own NFL Network. The ESPN contract runs out a year earlier. DirecTV's Sunday Ticket likewise expires end of 2022.
You don't need to diagram your chalkboard to see where this is going. For the 2023 season, you can almost certainly expect the NFL to go it alone or strike a massive deal with a streaming service—YouTube?—or create its own, and it'll be game over for the mainstream networks.
Once the NFL leaves what used to be called "broadcast television," the exodus of the public from cable and satellite will be legion. Already the trickle of viewers—mostly younger, but increasingly moving up in demographics—who have "cut the cord" and moved to platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and (the unspeakable) torrent sites, has begun to turn into a stream.
There is almost surely more money to be made for the NFL and its 32 teams selling season-long subscriptions for either the entire league or specific teams and divisions, or a la carte for high-profile games.
Right now, according to Bloomberg, DirecTV has two million Sunday Ticket subscribers, who pay roughly $240 a year for it, making it a money loser on paper for the satellite service, which pays $1.5 billion annual to air the games. That's how big a draw the NFL is—networks consistently lose money on the NFL deal to draw eyeballs for other elements of their programming.
Professional football has become so critical to mass advertising, in fact, it's important to keep in mind that the game has legally classified itself as "entertainment" and not sport. That should give us all pause, since the only other mainstream competitive event to do so is Professional Wrestling. Baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, etc.—all sports. NFL: entertainment.
This legal declaration came in an under-reported 2010 federal court case, when a disgruntled New York Jets fan sued the league following the Patriots' scandal where the New England team was caught videotaping opponents to steal their plays.
The NFL's winning argument was based upon it's claim the league is providing "entertainment," not sport, and that the league's 32 teams were not actually in competition, but working together as one business unit. The courts agreed, saying fans could vote with their dollars by not attending NFL games, but that was their only recourse.
Consider that as you watch the biggest television event of the year this weekend, where commercials cost $5 million for half a minute. And how important it is to keep viewers watching late into the game, so those commercials get bang for the buck. And how many close games there have been in the past decade, compared to the 40 years prior.
It sounds crazy, right? Like The X-Files kind of conspiracy claptrap, right? And yet, every so often, somebody says something that makes it sound not so crazy.
Like the interview iconoclastic Atlanta Falcons owner (and co-founder of Home Depot) Arthur Blank gave after his team lost the 2013 NFC Championship to the San Francisco 49ers after the greatest comeback in post-season history.
I remember seeing that interview on TV and doing a double take when Blank said: "It is predetermined that these two teams would be here. I wish my team was selected to be in the Super Bowl, but these two gentlemen deserve it."
Not unexpectedly, you can't find that interview on YouTube or anywhere—the NFL can be very picky about its video rights—but you can Google the quote at length.
Here's another interesting comment, from before the 2015 season, from 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who retired after a single season in the NFL. In an ESPN interview, Borland cited concerns about his long-term health in the wake of increasing concussion concerns and cover-ups, but also said the NFL is "like a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you're the actors in it. You're complicit in that: You put on the uniform. And it's a trivial thing at its core. It's make-believe, really. That's the truth about it."
Is it the truth?
During the height of "Deflategate" another NFL player, Joe Thomas, said "embarrassing" things like the Patriots' controversy made "the NFL relevant 365 [days of the year]. It's become so much more of an entertainment business and it's making so much money...But it's an entertainment business when it comes right down to it...But I think we're talking about a different NFL now...before it was more about the game. Now it's such an entertainment business. It's turning into the WWE really. It's like the Vince McMahon stuff. Basically [Roger] Goodell is like Vince McMahon."
The American television business needs football. Even more as entertainment than sport. What that all means, very few of us know and even fewer dare articulate.